For many wounded veterans who return home from the lines of duty, the process of going back to a life of normality can be tough. A local organization gets national attention for helping others.
Seven years ago, Tellico Village residents Mike and Suzy Kitchens, along with some friends, sat in their living room and realized they had a solution to help these veterans.
“So many of them are coming home severely wounded,” Mike Kitchens said. “I mean, this wasn’t just nationally, but it was around us here. Some of our friends had experience working with service dogs for autistic children, so we were well aware of the capability of these dogs to assist.”
The Kitchens decided it was time to embark on the journey to provide mobility assistance service dogs to wounded veterans and their families, thus creating Smoky Mountain Service Dogs.
“We started in 2010 and received our nonprofit status in 2011,” Kitchens said. “It took us two years to prepare our first dogs for placement because it takes anywhere from 1,500 to 1,800 hours of training to produce a mobility assistance service dog.”
The dogs are trained to perform almost any task required of the veteran, including retrieving items around the house and opening and closing doors.
“They’ll go to the refrigerator, open it, reach in, grab a bottle of water, shut the door and take it to a veteran on the sofa who may have his prosthetics off at that point,” Kitchens said. “They can also go around and grab their phone, especially if there’s an emergency. We do a lot of dropped-item training because we don’t want our veterans bending over.”
The organization provided its first dog in 2013 to an airborne ranger veteran in Niota. Another 20 veterans and families have since received service dogs.
Billy Marshall, a former Air Force explosive ordinance disposal specialist, lost an arm and leg in duty. He has formed a special bond with his service dog Lucy.
“I have been so blessed and I am very thankful to have Lucy,” Marshall said. “Lucy helps me in so many ways throughout my day. She retrieves items like my prosthetics, car keys and my favorite hat.”
Not only does Lucy help Marshall at the house, but also in public.
“I do most of the grocery shopping for my family,” Marshall said. “She’s able to get things for me off the shelf if I need her to. Lucy can even carry bags to the car and into the house. With just one arm and one leg, one can understand what huge help that is. She is truly an amazing service dog and we’re a team, Lucy and me. Whether it’s going to the store or being able to see my daughter cheer at a football game, we work together. The Smoky Mountain Service Dogs organization continues to attribute to our success each day.”
Applicable veterans are matched with the dog that will best meet their needs and train with the dog until a bond is formed. If successful, the organization holds a ceremony known as the Passing of the Leash at the Community Church at Tellico Village.
Bradley Walker, a former United States Marine Corps sergeant, lost both legs in 2006 during active duty in Iraq when his Humvee detonated an improvised explosive device, or IED.
On July 17, 2014, Walker graduated with his dog Bella, who has been a constant help and friend.
“Oh, she’s something wonderful,” Walker said. “I’m planning on going back to school after the house is built and I am married. Bella will be a constant companion every step of the way.”
Smoky Mountain Service Dogs has more than 100 volunteers and is raising money to build a new training facility through the More Wags for Warriors campaign.
“We own 10 acres off (U.S.) Highway 321,” Kitchens said. “We’re raising funds to build a new, 18-dog kennel and a veteran canine training center. Currently, we train in different places within the community, so we’re really wanting to get that new facility because that would just help out so much with what we’re doing.”
The organization was awarded the Chris Kyle Memorial Benefit award in May, which donated $225,000 to the organization. Kyle was a decorated veteran and sniper during the Iraq War.
“That was a huge deal to receive that honor,” Kitchens said. “That is the seed money for our campaign to raise $500,000 to build the new kennel and training center. Once we have those facilities in place, we’ll be able to double the number of veterans and families we can serve.”
For more information about the organization or to donate, visit www.smokymountainservicedogs.org.