Service dog Sgt. Maximus Charger and his veteran owner’s bond can’t be broken
About the Vail Veterans Program
• The Vail Veterans Program provides rehabilitative sports programs to U.S. military personnel who have been severely injured while serving in Operation Enduring Freedom, Operation Iraqi Freedom and to the troops who support those efforts.
• The program is open to wounded warriors and their families, building confidence and hope through skiing, snowboarding and outdoor summer recreational activities.
• The Vail Veterans Program is a volunteer organization and hosts wounded warriors and their families free of charge.
• Send donations or contact them at P.O. Box 6473, Vail, CO 81658; 970-476-4906; firstname.lastname@example.org.
VAIL — Injured paratrooper Philipe Herrera and his three-legged service dog understand each other.
“We bonded right away. We’re both a little broken,” Philipe said, smiling.
Herrera and his family — wife Christie and children Alyssa, Hannah and Joshua — are in town for the Vail Veterans Program summer family session.
“Programs like this are a God send, a life line,” Philipe said.
The Herrera family, of course, includes Sgt. Maximus Charger, a 1-year-old English bulldog that Christie picked when he was 2 days old.
In need of a service animal
Philipe needed a service animal, and Christie was perusing social media when a litter of English bulldog puppies grabbed her by the heartstrings. They chose Max when he was 2 days old, making him literally the pick of the litter.
They hired a trainer when he was 6 weeks old and set to work.
When he’s on the job, Sgt. Maximus Charger is resplendent in his Army green service vest, complete with a set of jumping wings and a tree camouflage leash.
Philipe lets people pet Max, even when he’s wearing his service vest.
“It’s good for me, too,” Philipe said.
When he’s not on the job, he’s a regular family dog, Christie said, running around and doing all of the dog stuff that family dogs do.
“When they strap on the vest, though, Max understands that it’s time to go to work,” Christie said. “He doesn’t always like it, but he understands that it’s his job, and he does it.”
‘I’m (not) fine’
Philipe was with the 173rd Airborne in Iraq when he was one of 1,500 paratroopers who were part of America’s 26th combat jump — also his last. He injured his back on that initial jump, but it didn’t look hurt, so he did what paratroopers do.
He sucked it up and kept moving forward.
“They had medics, but they didn’t know what to do with you if you didn’t have holes in you,” Philipe said.
When he could no longer tie his boots, he knew he had trouble.
One day, he was hobbling away from the hospital when a full bird colonel crossed his path. He was in too much pain to pay attention to the eagles on the colonel’s collar.
“How are you doing?” the colonel asked.
“Fine!” Hernandez barked as he waved his arm at the hospital. “They just told me in there that I’m fine!”
The colonel’s eyebrows went up, but not necessarily his temper. Philipe wasn’t in so much pain that he couldn’t also see he was in trouble; he snapped to attention, saluting smartly. The colonel had been a neurologist in the civilian world, and knew that nothing about Philipe was fine.
They chatted as amiably as you can with a colonel at whom you’ve just barked. Eventually, the colonel explained that Philipe had suffered a major back injury. That doesn’t include the traumatic brain injury he suffered when he hit the ground.
The colonel spent the rest of that day reaming everyone who had told Philipe he was fine, and put him on a plane home 24 hours later. All kinds of surgery followed, and Philipe now suffers from degenerative spine issues.
Eventually, the Army told him he could no longer be a paratrooper or in the infantry, he said. If he wanted to stay in the Army, then he’d be at a desk pushing paper.
“That was not an option for me,” he said.
The leg has to go
Fast forward through a series of surgeries and rehab. Philipe and Christie were in bed one night when Max cut loose with an unholy yelping from the living room. A trip to the veterinarian the next day found nothing, but Max limped around for a week.
Finally, Philipe and Christie demanded an MRI that found a broken growth plate and three inches of dead bone in Max’s left hind leg.
It wasn’t cancer, but the leg would have to go, the doctor said.
Both service man and service dog are doing fine.
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