Homeless veterans started lining up before dawn on that brisk winter day back in 2007. In the misty morning light, they stood outside Arizona Veterans Memorial Coliseum in Phoenix, clutching backpacks, sleeping bags, and pushing abandoned shopping carts. As the sun rose, outlines of people and animals became clearer. One man held a rope that was tied around the neck of a greying Pit Bull. A middle-aged woman was curled around a terrier shivering in her lap. A young man lay on the ground, spooned up against his Labrador mix to keep them both warm. The veterans varied in age and life experience, but they all had this in common: They loved their pets and would sacrifice anything for them.
This was eight years ago, when I experienced my first Arizona Veterans StandDown. My life hasn’t been the same since, and my participation in the annual event as a veterinary technician even sent me to the American Humane Association’s Hero Dog Awards gala earlier this year.
The Arizona Veterans StandDown provides three days of respite and shelter for homeless veterans with the goal of assisting them in meeting long-term needs and entering housing and treatment programs that will lead to their successful reintegration into the community. This year’s event, held in February, served a record 1,693 veterans. The organization I founded with Dr. Connie Anderson to help their animals, Vets for Vets’ Pets, served 570 dogs and cats.
I never really think about all that we’ve been doing these last eight years. I just do it. But back in March, I got a call from a friend and colleague who volunteers with me at StandDown. She told me she’d nominated me for the American Hero Veterinary Technician Award through the American Humane Association. I was really flattered and thanked her profusely, and I kind of thought that was it. Until I got a call in May, telling me that 12 industry and celebrity judges had selected me as one of the five finalists.
And then at 5 p.m. on July 3, Mari Harner from American Humane Association called to tell me I had won. I tried to remain professional, but mostly ended up squealing like a little girl.
The details came through a series of conference calls and a flurry of emails: Five days, four nights at the Beverly Hilton; a private movie screening with dinner and a panel discussion as a guest of philanthropist and AHA supporter Lois Pope; a cocktail party at the Stardust Penthouse, on the roof of the Beverly Hilton; a filming of Hallmark Channel’s Home & Family; a star-studded awards gala, with a red carpet appearance. It was all so surreal. It felt like someone had plucked me out of my everyday life and put me right into a fairytale.
The day of the Hero Dog Awards gala was full of excitement and anticipation. I walked the red carpet, flashbulbs going off as media took photos. A cocktail hour and auction preceded the big event. Industry executives and celebrities, including actors Cameron Mathison, Alison Sweeney, Lacey Chabert, Pauley Perrette, Lea Thompson, Danica McKellar, Bindi Irwin, Alicia Witt, and musician John Ondrasik mingled with the guests.
The Hero Dog Awards took place in the International Ballroom at the Beverly Hilton; this is the same room where the Golden Globes are held. The room was filled with colored lights, the Hero Dog logo projected on the walls, beautifully laid tables, pastel floral arrangements, and people in sparkling evening wear. I found my table and was seated among board members for VCA Animal Hospitals and the AHA.
Finally it was time for my award to be presented. A production assistant led me backstage to the green room where my hair and makeup were touched up. I crossed the stage and accepted the heavy crystal Tiffany & Co. statue from Danica McKellar, Dogster’s own Dr. Marty Becker, and Dr. J. Michael McFarland of Zoetis. I turned toward the crowd, looking at the 700 faces giving me a standing ovation, and delivered my acceptance speech.
After the gala, the other winners and I were bouncing off the walls with excitement and awe at what we had just done. We laughed, cried, and relived the gala until just before dawn. No one wanted it to end.
Although we had to fly home the next day, we all gathered again soon; this time in Washington D.C. The AHA had invited us to a congressional briefing on America’s Hero Dogs on October 21, where we discussed the power of the human-animal bond.
And even though I am now back to regular life, every once in a while I pull my evening gown out of my closet and remember how it felt to be famous, if even just for 15 minutes.
The 2015 Hero Dog Awards will air on the Hallmark Channel on October 30. Check your local listings for times.
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About the author: Julie Carlson is a freelance writer and a certified veterinary technician, working at Pima Medical Institute. She is also the co-founder of Vets for Vets’ Pets, a nonprofit organization providing supplies and medical care to the pets of homeless and at-risk veterans. Julie has five cats, two Chihuahuas, and a fish, and lives in Phoenix, Arizona.