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Southeastern Guide Dogs: Why We Do What We Do

If you have been following this column, you have learned the process of guide dog team training and the early stages of training for the dogs. Now, here’s an example of the impact a guide dog can have on someone’s life.

Retired Lt. Col. Kathy Champion has been there and done that.

In nearly 28 years in the United States Army, Champion acted as a paramedic, commanded a civil affairs unit and helped to rebuild West Baghdad. She survived seven explosions, countless sandstorms and harsh living environments. When she returned home, Kathy began fighting another battle, one against Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Determined to reintegrate back into her life and daily activities, she rallied against it.

A marathon runner, Champion participated in the “Hood to Coast” race, but afterward she didn’t recover normally. It was then she got news she never expected: She learned she had contracted a virus while in Iraq and it was now affecting her optic nerve, plunging her irrevocably into blindness.

Champion isolated herself from friends and family and rarely left the house. Thankfully though, friends decided one day that Champion was going to get out whether she liked it or not. They gathered her up to go shark tooth hunting in Venice. On the way down, they spotted a sign for an Open House at Southeastern Guide Dogs and, despite Champion’s protest, they came on campus. Champion met with the trainers and did a test walk with a guide dog.  Still unsure if it was right for her, Champion completed the application process, and in April 2009 she started training.

Champion was matched with a lively goldador (labrador/golden retriever mix) named Angel — coincidently, the same name she called her children. Angel’s boundless energy boosted Champion’s spirits. The training was tough, and a number of times she wanted to quit, but coaxing from friends and the trainers kept her pushing forward.

Since graduating from Southeastern Guide Dogs, Champion and Angel have been inseparable. They’ve visited the Grand Canyon and Space Camp at NASA, watched a space shuttle launch, negotiated the busy streets of New York City, and even toured the studio of NBC Nightly News and met with Brian Williams.

With Angel’s support, Champion has regained her independence and is now working to “pay it forward” for other wounded warriors. She has pledged to raise $2 million for the program that gave her Angel — Southeastern’s "Paws for Patriots." This program pairs visually impaired veterans with guide dogs, veteran assistance dogs with soldiers suffering from PTSD and facility therapy dogs at military medical facilities to provide support and encouragement. 

Champion has been instrumental in putting together a number of fundraisers, including a bike rally in conjunction with the Harley Owner’s Group, and she even got a team of women to lace up their running shoes and participate in the Women’s Half Marathon last November. Champion was recently honored for her efforts on behalf of wounded warriors by Bob Woodruff’s ReMind Foundation.

Champion credits Angel with lifting her out of the darkness into which she was falling and can’t imagine life without her. If Angel’s wagging tail and smiling face is any indication, she too can’t imagine being apart from Champion.

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