By Kate Malatino
February 8, 2012 (San Diego)--Gabe, a San Diego military veteran, is a seemingly laid-back, young guy. He's quick to smile, easy to joke with and can often be found wearing a tee shirt that's printed to appear like a tuxedo. However, if you get to know Gabe, you quickly realize how intense he actually is. He is fearless and ambitious - an unstoppable combination.
Gabe is a Corporal in the United States Marine Corps. He served on two deployments. He was injured on his second deployment in Afghanistan. "My job is combat engineer," Gabe explains. "I was doing route clearance at the time I was injured. I find the IEDs (Improvised Explosive Devices) that they bury in the road and it's my job to handle them at that point." One day, things went horribly wrong. Gabe woke up a double amputee. "I was injured on Thanksgiving," he says matter-of-factly.
Instead of focusing on his injury, Gabe prefers to talk about his recovery.
"My recovery has been amazing," he says. "The process is self-motivated with the support of others. I was in the States on about November 30th and in about February I started walking." Gabe explains, "The prosthetics these days are amazing!" One year later, with the help of two prosthetic legs, Gabe is still walking - and much more. So far, Gabe has completed two 5k runs and two marathons. "The ultimate goal I set for myself before I was walking was I wanted to do the Ironman competition - the triathlon," Gabe says. He is still working towards that goal.
Despite his capabilities and amazing achievements post-injury, Gabe still has moments in which he could use a little help. A few months ago, Gabe received Service Dog Wonka from Canine Companions for Independence. Canine Companions is a nonprofit organization that enhances the lives of people with disabilities by providing highly trained assistance dogs and ongoing support to ensure quality partnerships. Wonka works as hard as he plays and he is always ready to step in whenever Gabe needs assistance. "Just the simple fact that Wonka picks stuff up, keeping me from having to bend down - he's great with that," Gabe says. "The less strain on my back, the better."
Wonka also helps Gabe up stairs by helping to pull him forward and keep him balanced. "Wonka becoming part of our family was a big step towards Gabe's independence," Gabe's wife, Kayla, explains. "Every once in a while he just needs that extra help - if it's reaching something or opening doors when he's in his wheelchair. He doesn't always wear his prosthetics." Wonka even retrieves Gabe's prosthetic legs from the floor when he is using his wheelchair!
"When Wonka's in work mode, he's about mission accomplishment," says Gabe. "That's the foundation of the Marines - mission accomplishment.He's definitely a Marine dog now!"
Gabe would like to see more injured veterans benefit from partnerships with Canine Companions service dogs. "I see service dogs being in high demand for these wounded warriors," says Gabe. "There is anyone from a single amputee, to a double amputee like myself, to triple amputees. quadruple. There are a lot of serious injuries and service dogs would most definitely benefit those veterans."
Gabe and Wonka graduated together after completing an intense, residential, two-week Team Training course at Canine Companions' Southwest Regional Facility in Oceanside. During Team Training, students are strategically matched with assistance dogs and learn how to work with them safely and effectively. The dogs are trained for two years prior in up to 50 commands before they are ready to become someone's 24/7 helper. Canine Companions established the Wounded Veterans Initiative in 2007 to increase placements of assistance dogs with disabled veterans, particularly those who served in Iraq and Afghanistan. Thanks to Canine Companions' generous supporters, the dogs, their training and ongoing follow-up support are provided free of charge.
About Canine Companions for Independence: Canine Companions for Independence, provides highly-trained assistance dogs to children and adults with disabilities. Established in 1975, Canine Companions has five regional training centers across the country (including locally in Oceanside), serving veterans and other disabled individuals nationwide. Canine Companions is recognized worldwide for the excellence of its dogs, and the quality and longevity of the matches it makes between dogs and people. For more information, visit www.cci.org or call 1-800-572-BARK.