Having watched the smoke from the Pentagon from his McLean veterinary hospital, Bob Youngblood was personally touched by the events on Sept. 11, 2001.
It was what he saw in the weeks and months following 9/11 that grabbed his heart and spurred him to start Paws of Honor, a non-profit program that provides medical care for dogs that have been retired from service in the military and/or law enforcement.
“My wife called and said you need to find a television,” Youngblood said. “The Twin Towers just got hit and they’re not sure what it is. While I was still talking to her, I looked out the window and I saw smoke coming from the Pentagon.”
As director of the Old Dominion Animal Health Center, Youngblood already knew and treated many dogs affiliated with Department of Defense and law enforcement agencies. One of his clients, in fact, was the Pentagon K-9 Protection Force.
“The handlers started bringing these K-9s in that had been at the Pentagon,” he said. “They had smoke inhalation, chemical burns, cuts, and bruises. These K-9s were battered, and some of them were never the same. What hit me, even more, was the emotional bond between the dogs and their handlers. What they had gone through and what they had seen, together. They were searching through the burning rubble, dragging people out – some were alive and some weren’t.”
Youngblood said he is an animal lover and form strong bonds with his pets and the animals he treats, but this was something even deeper.
“Everyone loves their dog and has a special bond with them,” he said. “But I could see something different, even stronger, because of what they had gone through together.”
An idea was planted with Youngblood that he couldn’t act on right away because he lacked the time and proper facilities. In 2015, he started Paws of Honor.
“We had just moved into the new building and I started to be able to clear my desk to where I felt I had time to start working on this,” he said. “It took about six months to get the paperwork done, but I was able to start providing free veterinary care for these K-9s and take the burden off their handlers.”
Youngblood said he now has about 115 dogs in the program and in three years, Paws of Honor has provided about $450,000 in benefits. For David Orr and his best friend, Buddy, Paws of Honor was like a dream come true.
Orr is a veteran of the United States Air Force where he served as a firefighter/EMT. He began his law enforcement career in 2001 with the Leesburg Police Department and joined the Loudoun County Sheriff’s Office in 2006. Five years later, he accepted a position as an Explosives Detection K9 Handler and was paired with Buddy, a yellow Labrador retriever, in 2012.
“We worked together for four years,” Orr said. “We had a call one day and went to assist VSP (Virginia State Police) because they thought someone threw a gun out the window. We ran out to the area and were getting ready to do the search. When I opened the door, he was having a seizure.”
Because of the cost of diagnosing and treating Buddy’s condition, the decision was made to retire him from service in April 2016.
“It’s really is a numbers game, Orr said. “It’s expensive to run a K9 unit, and why should they spend $3,000 or $4,000 on (medical expenses) when they could buy another dog for $800.”
While that was devastating to Orr, he knew it would be even more difficult for Buddy.
“We had been together 24/7 for four years,” Orr said. “I was dreading the first day I had to go to work without him. When he knew I was getting ready for work, he would always get real excited and go and run to the door. I spent that whole day worrying about him and if he was doing OK.”
“To everybody, their dog is not just a dog,” Orr said. “But with what we had gone through together, It’s a bond I just can’t describe. He was not just a pet. He was not just a partner. He is my life.”
With Buddy retired, all of his medical expenses now fell on Orr. He heard about Paws of Honor and he and Buddy joined the program a month after Buddy was retired. Orr immediately started volunteering an bringing Buddy to events sponsored by POH, and he now services on the board of directors.
“Having this program, having someone to help Buddy, I just wanted to do something to give back,” Orr said.
Looking to expand on the success of Paws of Honor, Youngblood said he is ready to take POH to the next level.
“Right now we are limited to serving a 40-mile radius,” Youngblood said. “I am working to take the program nationally, starting before the end of this year. I’m looking at putting programs, initially, where there are military bases, although we will take care of both police and military dogs.”
Youngblood said Paws of Honor needs two things to be sustainable and to grow.
“We need more handlers to volunteer and come to our events,” he said. “We have 115 dogs in the program, and we have like eight (handlers) who volunteer. The dogs are what sells the program. We need to get more of them involved.”
Second, POH needs to find ways to attract more donations.
“We are in the process of hiring a national fund-raising firm to take the program national,” Youngblood said. “Once we do, it will obviously solidify what we are doing locally but also all allow us to branch out.”
Youngblood said its important to raise awareness of the fact that the government stops providing medical care when a K9 is retired.
“It’s not fair to put that burden on their handlers, who already be going through some difficulties from what they went through,” Youngblood said. “These dogs serve right alongside their handlers. They deserved to be honored, not thrown away like military surplus.”
Youngblood said all the time and effort is worthwhile when he sees how Paws of Honor is helping these handler-K9 teams.
“Its that emotion in every single member of Paws of Honor,” he said. “Everyone has that same emotion and that same feeling for their dog. That’s what was so palpable in the days after 9/11.”