11/19/06 - Posted from the Daily Record newsroom

Veteran, family provide dog to help spirit of wounded G.I.



In her son's first months at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, Missy Benoit made her middle son a promise. She gave him a small stuffed animal -- a brown and white dog named Spud -- until she could get him a real one.

Extensive wounds from a September 2005 roadside bomb attack in Baghdad left Army Spc. Jim Benoit, a Wharton native, permanently disabled and undergoing 79 surgeries at the Washington, D.C., hospital over 10 months.

Spud was a constant on Benoit's bed those early months when Benoit hardly understood what happened to him and doctors were not sure he would survive. Missy Benoit, a cat owner, promised her son then that he would walk out of the hospital and he would get the dog he always wanted.

Defying his doctors' initial prognosis that he would never walk again, Benoit is walking with a cane and plans to leave the hospital in December. And today, a constant at his side is Edison, a three-year-old black Labrador.

"Edison knows his job,"Missy Benoit said. "He is here to take care of Jimmy."

Edison is more than a companion, he's also a service dog and was specially trained to work for Benoit. He pulls Benoit's wheelchair, retrieves objects that have fallen to the ground and can serve as a balancing support for Benoit, should he lose his balance while walking.

How Benoit acquired Edison is much like the stories of how a handicapped-accessible home is being built for him in Wharton and how $40,000 was raised for him through his alma mater, Morris Hills High School, and a community pub crawl.

Since Benoit was wounded on Sept. 7, 2005, friends and strangers have come forward to donate time and money to smooth his transition to civilian life.

Maj. William McKnight met Benoit while escorting New Jersey's Democratic Sen. Robert Menendez to Walter Reed this summer. McKnight is a congressional legislative liaison, representing the Army on Capitol Hill and often gives tours of Walter Reed.

Boosting morale

Missy Benoit gave McKnight a list of requests she had for her son. She explained that the dog was probably the most important item for improving Benoit's morale.

McKnight, a Long Island native and 14-year-Army veteran who served in Afghanistan for 17 months during Operation Enduring Freedom, took on the mission. On his own time, he researched service dog organizations, starting with an online search and calling nearly 30 places.

"I'm just one serviceman helping another," McKnight said. "This is my small way of giving back. I was fortunate enough to not be injured. It just as easily could be me in a wheelchair."

Within 10 days, McKnight found Quality K-9 in Palmetto, Fla., owned by Jim Mathys. At his own cost, McKnight decided to visit Mathys, who agreed to donate a trained service dog to Benoit.

Missy Benoit said she initially registered her son with Walter Reed to request a service dog, but never received an answer. Terry Goodman, a spokesman for Walter Reed, said the hospital never received an application from the Benoit family. The hospital has received 10 requests for service dogs and, so far, three have received dogs after they left the hospital and another four will get dogs when they are discharged, the Walter Reed official said. The hospital works with two service dog organizations to secure dogs for their veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

McKnight and Mathys are now working to get service dogs donated for two other wounded servicemen. Each is modest about their contribution, referring to the other as the hero.

Mathys said he learned how to train dogs from his father, who trained guide dogs for nearly 50 years. A certified dog guide trainer, he previously worked for Southeast Guide Dogs in Palmetto, Fla. Ten years ago, Mathys opened his own training school, providing obedience training as well as preparing dogs for work with police and people with disabilities.

Mathys, who said he served in the U.S. Air Force from 1976 to 1980, is partial to helping veterans. Mathys said he was able to talk his dog supplier into donating Edison. Mathys then donated his time to train Edison and Benoit.

'Military mentality'

"I enjoy working with veterans, they have a military mentality -- they don't give up," Mathys said. "In this case, I don't care if the dog does anything more than give him emotional support."

Edison has made a difference in Benoit's disposition, his mother said.

The dog has gotten the often-serious and shy 24-year-old to smile and laugh and to open up a little, Missy Benoit said. The dog is a natural conversation piece that gets Benoit talking to people, when otherwise he would not.

The dog is very well-trained and has become protective of Benoit, she said. At the airport recently, Edison picked up Benoit's ID card that fell to the floor. He assists Benoit in his physical therapy sessions. And he sits quietly next to Benoit when he's not working.

"They're so good together, it's really fun to watch,"Missy Benoit said.