When Patricia Summers and her partner, Cliff Miller, visited the Northport VA Hospital last month, they ran into an old friend who, as soon as he recognized Miller, jumped on him and began licking his face.
Sarge, a service dog at the veterans facility, had not seen Miller since he was a pup. That was when Summers and Miller, co-founders of Friends of America’s VetDogs, had been introduced to the black lab at the America’s VetDogs training facility in Smithtown.
“He ran right up to him,” recalls Summers, 66, who lives in Sayville. “Cliff had held Sarge for 20 minutes when he was just 6 weeks old. And he recognized him almost three years later.”
Miller, 66, a grizzled ex-fire inspector, gets a bit misty-eyed at the thought of Sarge lapping his face. “Smarter than most people,” is how he describes not only Sarge but all 10 of the remarkable dogs that he and his significant other Summers have funded through the group they formed in 2014.
They are the friends to an organization that was started in 2003 as a project within the Guide Dog Foundation for the Blind, formed in response to the growing number of disabled veterans then returning from Afghanistan and Iraq. It was known that their basic mobility and independence could be helped by specially trained dogs, much as those without sight have been aided by canines for years.
As America’s post-9/11 conflicts have dragged on, the need for these animals has only increased; and America’s VetDogs is now its own separate organization, sharing the 10-acre facility in Smithtown with the Guide Dog Foundation.
The dogs that serve veterans are trained for other tasks than guiding the sightless: They can do everything from, say, retrieve a prosthetic, to turn on the lights in a room (with their noses), to help wake a veteran with post-traumatic stress disorder from a nightmare.
Summers and Miller discovered the capabilities of these service dogs when they attended a function during which a veteran spoke about how her service dog helped her. “She suffered from seizures,” Miller says. “And she was using a dog trained to alert her. He could actually sniff and anticipate the seizure.”
Summers and Miller, who have been together for 25 years (both were married previously), were recently retired (she had taught Spanish and Italian at Northport High School). They were deeply moved by the presentation and motivated to action when they learned that the cost to breed, raise, train, and place one of these dogs is more than $50,000 — and that the America’s VetDogs program, which is free to veterans with disabilities, depends entirely on donations.
“I said to Cliff, ‘we’re retired, we have the time,’ ” recalls Summers. “Let’s do something more than write a check.”
Miller, the son of a decorated World War II veteran, had additional motivation. “Those of us who grew up in the Vietnam era remember how horrendously those veterans were treated,” he said. Here was an opportunity to help ensure that today’s veterans in need would get the help and support they required — and through a locally based organization.
Determined to organize fundraising events to support the service dogs, the couple reached out to some of their friends.
“As soon as they told me about it, it was like ‘no problem, whatever you want,’ ” says their friend Lenny Maddalena, a retired New York City bus driver from Brentwood, who served in the Army in the 1960s. “I would do anything for a veteran.”
Apparently, so would many of the other Long Islanders who soon came into the couple’s widening circle. One friend, Nancy Felice, was downsizing her home in Patchogue and suggested they hold a yard sale — appropriately enough, on July Fourth weekend. “In one day, we made a thousand dollars,” Summers says, “and donated every penny to the VetDogs.”
The group, which eventually grew to about 22 active members — including Summers, Miller, the Maddalenas and Felice — were soon holding more garage sales, comedy club nights and auctions to benefit the charity.
“They really understand what we do here,” says Claire Martinez, philanthropy officer for America’s VetDogs. “And they go at it 100 percent.”
The centerpiece of the Friends of America’s VetDogs fundraising efforts is its annual charity auction, coming up April 7 at the former St. Lawrence the Martyr School in Sayville. Attendees bid on original pieces of artwork, vacations, golf lessons, dinners at local restaurants and more. “You name it,” Summers says. “And it’s all donated.”
Now in its fourth year, the auction is eagerly anticipated. “We were sold out three weeks after tickets were printed,” says Janis Maddalena.
While the Maddalenas have been a big part of the effort (which last year raised $20,000), Janis Maddalena says there’s no question who is at the heart of the Friends group. “Cliff and Patricia are the organizers,” she says, noting Cliff’s attention to detail, particularly at the April event. Typically in such auctions, she says, “people storm in and grab seats.” But not at the Friends of America’s Vet Dogs auctions. “Cliff has assigned seats for everyone,” Janis Maddalena says. “It’s like a wedding!”
If their fundraisers are like weddings, the product of their union is the pups. Most of the service dogs are labs, golden retrievers and poodles — breeds known for their temperament and willingness to work and learn — and specially trained for the tasks they will undertake with their veteran masters. One of the perks that the Friends get for their donations is the opportunity to spend a half-hour periodically with some of the puppies before they begin their 18-month training.
In addition, they get to name them.
“People were saying ‘Why don’t you name one of them Patricia, name one of them Cliff?’ ” Miller recalled. “I said, ‘No, these are vet dogs, let’s name them after vets.’ ” Now, he says, “every dog we honor is named after an unsung vet.”
Examples include, Florence, a yellow lab, whom Miller and Summers named for Lt. Florence Evans, a Sayville native and Army nurse who was the only Long Island woman killed in action during World War II. Or Ballard, a black lab, named for Donald Ballard, a Navy medic who won a Medal of Honor in Vietnam.
And, of course, Sarge: Lenny Maddalena maintains that he suggested the name as a generic title, since, as he says, “sergeants are the backbone of the Army.” But Miller decided to link it to Marine Gunnery Sgt. John Basilone, who won a Medal of Honor for bravery during the Guadalcanal campaign in World War II, and was later killed at Iwo Jima.
Regardless of which Sarge he represents, Sarge the VetDog — accompanied by a nurse from the Northport VA Hospital — will be the guest of honor at the April 7 auction. The now 3-year-old black lab will be introduced to the audience of 325. He will probably jump up and lick Miller’s face again. He will sit quietly at attention when the national anthem is sung. And, who knows? Given the level of training he has received, maybe Sarge will even give a speech.
“Why not?” laughs Summers. “These dogs can do everything!”
With a little help from their two-legged friends, that is.
HOW TO HELP
Having a service dog can make all the difference to a veteran’s well-being.
If you would like to help Friends of America’s VetDogs or America’s VetDogs or want to learn more about these organizations, go to vetdogs.org