While researching The Rescued Dog Problem Solver, my book about 12 dogs who were abused, surrendered, abandoned, or otherwise forgotten before becoming treasured companions in loving homes, I found a photograph of a disabled veteran and his rescued shelter dog navigating a grocery store. The dog, trained to mitigate the effects of his owner’s PTSD, would walk ahead of the veteran’s wheelchair, searching the aisles and alerting to any potential threats. I was struck by this veteran’s story, his dog’s training, and the impenetrable human-canine relationship based on mutual trust. Immediately I wanted to know more about our nation’s veterans and their specially trained service dogs.
I was unable to locate the veteran in the photograph, but my endless curiosity about why we love dogs and why they love us unconditionally in return led me to the 15 veterans I ended up profiling in my new book, Reporting for Duty: True Stories of Wounded Veterans and Their Service Dogs. Veterans who served during World War II as well as the Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Gulf War eras are featured.
World War II veterans are now mostly in their 90s. Sadly, the Veterans Administration estimates one WWII veteran dies every three minutes. When I came across Irwin Stovroff, a 93-year-old retired World War II veteran and his service dog, Cash, I knew I had to speak with him. But would he share his story with me so I could share it with the readers of Reporting for Duty?
In researching this book, I quickly realized many veterans — especially wounded veterans — are not eager to share their stories of adversity. While many were reluctant to revisit the painful experiences and emotions associated with deployment, all of them were eager to share stories about the impenetrable bond of trust they share with their trained service dogs.
August 13, 1944: Irwin Stovroff was a 22-year-old second lieutenant and bombardier in the U.S. Air Force. While flying his 35th mission — a “milk run” over the English Channel to the town of Falaise, France, which is famous for the battle that encircled the German army, creating a pocket known as the Falaise Pocket, from which, for the Germans, there would be no escape — Stovroff and his nine crew members were shot down over Nazi-occupied territory.
He describes the battle in my book:
“We were going to blow up these bridges blocking the Germans from escaping the coastline in Normandy. I was lining up my bomb site and — wham! — we got hit,” says Stovroff.
German 88-mm shells from anti-aircraft guns tore through the American B-24 Liberator’s number-one and number-two engines, creating a trail of black smoke and flames and disabling the plane’s hydraulic system. Stovroff toggled the 1,000-pound bombs through the bomb-bay doors, stripped off his flak jacket, strapped on a parachute, and, along with the nine crew members, bailed out of the battle-damaged heavy bomber.
Counting — eight, nine, ten — he pulled the parachute’s ripcord. Dropping 18,000 feet, he hit the ground and tossed his dog tags that were stamped with “H” for Hebrew. Landing on Nazi-occupied soil, Stovroff had German guns trained on him almost immediately.
Together, the Passion Pit’s crew flew thirty-four bombing mission — many deep into Germany, bombing every major target in Germany, including raids on Berlin. Originally, they were told that they would fly twenty-five missions during the war, but due to the high casualty rate, that number climbed to thirty and then thirty-five. The thirty-fifth mission was the crew’s last scheduled assignment before completing their tour of duty. Instead of returning stateside, however, Stovroff ended up at Stalag Luft 1, spending thirteen months as a POW.
Seventy-one years after parachuting out of the B-24 Liberator, Stovroff — recipient of the Air Medal, the Purple Heart, and the Distinguished Flying Cross — is still at work, still grateful to be alive, and still serving our nation by helping veterans adjust to civilian life.
Like most veterans, Stovroff balks at being called a hero. He says in my book:
I’m very proud of the fact that I really did do something in combat for my country. I recognize that I am a very fortunate man. I came home in one piece. Being Jewish, I was lucky to get out of there alive. I’ve never forgotten that. So I spend my time helping those who can’t help themselves.
A true American hero, Stovroff remains a shining beacon to those wrestling with emotional and physical disabilities. Most people half his age would have a hard time keeping up with him. In 2007, at 86 years old, he founded Vets Helping Heroes, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit foundation that raises funds which are then donated to nonprofit organizations that train service dogs for veterans. Since its founding, Vets Helping Heroes has raised nearly $5 million dollars and funded the training of 120 dogs for our nation’s wounded veterans.
A tireless advocate, Stovroff shows no signs of slowing down. He still drives, but doesn’t golf or play tennis or any of the myriad activities you might expect from a nonagenarian. Instead, the energetic yet soft-spoken Stovroff, with his service dog Cash by his side, spends nearly every waking minute promoting the benefits of service dogs for wounded veterans. Whether he’s visiting injured veterans at VA hospitals and community living centers, fundraising, speaking publicly, fielding telephone calls, or answering emails, Stovroff champions the positive benefits of service dogs for our nation’s veterans.
He explains in my book:
Our primary purpose, our number-one purpose, is helping veterans. I’ve been through combat. I know what these men and women are going through. Cash is everything to me. He’s always by my side. All you need to do is look into a dog’s eyes. That love never disappears. It’s always there.
While chatting with Mr. Stovroff, we marveled at the emotional love dogs provide on a daily basis, and how — despite the medical and scientific technology available to rebuild hands, arms, and legs — it is the dog who saves the veteran’s life. The dog who pulls him back from the brink of suicide. That’s pretty amazing.
For nearly 30 years I have been writing about dogs — their history, origin, and purpose for which they were originally bred, as well as about nutrition, genetics, training, and cutting-edge medical technology. Yet getting to know these 15 wounded veterans who benefit daily from the assistance, companionship, and unconditional love of trained service dogs, and sharing their stories of pain, adversity, and triumph, is one of the most cherished episodes of my writing career.
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About the author: Tracy Libby is a writer and photographer whose work has won multiple awards from the Dog Writers Association of America (DWAA) and the Alliance of Purebred Dog Writers (APDW). She holds a Bachelor of Science degree in journalism from the University of Oregon and has been writing about pet care for more than two decades. Her articles have appeared in most mainstream magazines including Dog Fancy, Modern Dog, Dog World, and Puppies USA, as well as online. Reporting for Duty is her 14th book on canines. She lives in Oregon with her husband, five cats, and five Australian Shepherds. She has been involved in the sport of dogs for nearly three decades, exhibiting her Aussies in agility, conformation, and obedience.