For 15 years, Karen Shirk matched people with the service dogs that are best suited to their needs. But recently, one match-up has convinced her that despite she and her staff’s diligent work, there are sometimes other factors that seem to make the decision for them.
In March, Shirk received an email from Army Sgt. Derek McConnell, inquiring about a service dog. He had lost both legs in an IED explosion and was recovering at the Walter Reed Medical Center in Washington.
Shirk thought of Gabriel, a German shepherd they were currently training, and felt he would be ideal.
“I sent him a picture of Gabriel and said, ‘How would you like this dog?’” Shirk said. “He was so excited. … He would text me every day.”
She knew that McConnell needed the companionship, as well as his independence.
“Soldiers, they’re not wanting people to do things for them,” said Shirk, who was honored as a CNN Hero for her work with autistic and special-needs children. “If you have to ask (someone) all the time to pick things up that you drop or ‘Bring me my wheelchair,’ they have to depend on somebody else. … Giving them a service dog is giving them back a means of doing it themselves.”
She and McConnell fast became friends. She planned to give Gabriel to him for free, asking civilians to help contribute toward the costs of training. McConnell was helping to come up with ways to raise funds. They had been keeping in constant contact, and Shirk was surprised when she stopped hearing from him.
“I went to his Facebook page, and this first post that I saw said, ‘You were the most wonderful young man,’ ” she said. “And I’m like, “Were?’”
Shirk was beside herself to find that McConnell had died due to complications from his injuries. She grieved the loss, but decided the best way to honor him would be to help another wounded soldier by placing Gabriel with them. She spoke to someone else she knew in the military.
I said, ‘Find me another Derek!’”
Within days, Lisa Murphy found out about Gabriel through the Yellow Ribbon Fund, a charity in Maryland that helps injured service members.
“Someone basically made her aware that this group was looking for a soldier amputee to connect with a service dog,” said Lisa’s husband, U.S. Army Capt. Jake Murphy. “I was looking for a dog myself, so Lisa kind of jumped on it.”
Like McConnell, Murphy had lost his legs in Afghanistan. But they had even more than that in common. The two men had served in the same unit and had been injured on the same day. McConnell even helped with Murphy’s medical evacuation just hours before suffering his own trauma. They recovered at Walter Reed together, and became acquaintances during therapy.
Shirk could not believe the coincidence – she had used different means to meet both soldiers.
“It’s like a once-in-a-lifetime story that you hear,” she said. “I just think it was meant to be.”
Murphy sees it differently.
“If it was fate, then Derek was meant to die, so I don’t really like to think of that,” he said. “But if Derek can’t be here, it’s almost fitting that I get Gabriel as my service dog. “There’s a connection between him and myself. … Derek will always be in my thoughts.”
The string of events has breathed new life into Shirk’s love for working with veterans.
“Derek and Jake lost their independence, giving independence to others. … Those veterans, that was who I wanted to help,” she said. “I’m hoping more of these wounded soldiers will come to us looking for dogs.”
“We are ready. They can all come, and we will help them.”
For more information, please visit 4 Paws for Ability.