TAMPA — After being medically discharged from the Marines following an injury in 2004, BJ Ganem went through a divorce, bankruptcy and a growing drinking problem, what he describes as some of the most difficult parts of his life.
Through it all, one thing kept him going before he eventually turned his life around: adopting Dozer, an Olde English Bulldogge puppy.
“In the darkest moment, I knew that if I did anything desperate, nobody would want that dumb dog,” Ganem told the crowd.
His own experiences lead him to found Sierra Delta, a nonprofit that connects veterans with service dog training, regardless of disability status. On Saturday, dozens gathered downtown outside Ulele Restaurant to support the organization in a “Salute-To-Service-Stroll.”
The event replaced the Wounded Warriors amputee football game that normally precedes the Super Bowl but was cancelled this year due to the pandemic.
Also in attendance was Marine Gen. Kenneth McKenzie Jr., the four-star general who commands U.S. Central Command at MacDill Air Force Base, Miss America 2020 Camille Schrier of Virginia, a lot of veteran and civilian dog lovers and their pets.
With her Golden Retriever Cook at her side, 51-year-old Kelly Smith came to support the event. She’s been friends with Ganem for more than six years and has been involved with Sierra Delta since it was founded in 2017. She’s also a Navy veteran who lost her left arm in a grenade attack. She’s grateful for the resources it’s provided her to help continue training for her dog.
“He is my best friend,” Smith said of Cook. “He’s given me the confidence to be out away from my home, to be around people, to be more social, to be a part of society again.”
Shortly after 9:30 a.m., the crowd gathered behind the AVAST Color Guard, composed of Tampa Bay veterans, to begin a brief stroll along the Tampa Riverwalk.
Former NFL and Buccaneers wide receiver Mark Jones, 40, walked with the group alongside his wife, Kati.
“It’s definitely worth it to be a part of and come support it,” said Mark Jones, whose grandfather served in the Army.
As the group strolled under the overcast sky along the river, 41-year-old Shyla Grimes walked with her chihuahua, Ruby, and American Staffordshire Terrier, Rockstar. Rockstar was dressed in a T-shirt and Mardi Gras beads, while Ruby donned a sparkly red dress with wings.
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Grimes first heard about the walk through the Dog Bar Village Facebook page. She’s pursuing a graduate degree in social work and wanted to help support service members.
“Every veteran deserves a dog,” she said. “Dogs are amazing. They bring so much love and companionship.”
To donate or volunteer, visit Sierra Delta’s website at sierradelta.com.
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