By Danielle DeSimone
For USO Missouri Center Manager Kelly Brownfield, when it comes to therapy dogs, the bigger the better. This dedicated military supporter has had three Great Danes work alongside her at the USO as therapy dogs, with her two current dogs weighing in at around 200 pounds each.
Brownfield didn’t initially intend for Bandit, her first therapy dog, to become such a prominent fixture at the USO, but the gentle giant had a knack for comforting service members from puppyhood. Bandit seemed able to tell when a service member visiting the USO Missouri center was upset and would simply plant himself at their feet – or sometimes, on their lap – until they began petting him.
In fact, after undergoing months of training and finally being certified as a therapy dog, Bandit’s first day on the job was an important one. As the Great Dane roamed freely around the USO center, he suddenly laid down next to a Marine who appeared to be incredibly distressed. Brownfield gave the Marine his space, as he spoke on the phone and petted Bandit. Later, the Marine approached Brownfield and thanked her for bringing Bandit into the center, explaining that he had just been informed that his father had died, but that having Bandit there beside him had been an incredible comfort. Somehow, Bandit had known who needed him most that day.
Over the years, Bandit became well-known not just in Missouri, but all across the country, as Brownfield brought him to support the military community wherever he was needed. Bandit, as well as the two Great Danes – Maverick and Apache – who followed in his pawsteps after his death in 2021 worked beyond the walls of the USO center. Once word got out about the incredibly large and friendly therapy dogs working at the USO center, military leaders on base began reaching out to Brownfield and the USO asking for Bandit, and later Maverick and Apache, to visit their units to assist with morale.
Soon, the dogs began visiting service members on suicide watch, or even accompanying chaplains to assist units after a suicide occurred in their unit.
“The unit thinks ‘we get to play with these dogs’ when really what we’re doing is breaking down the emotional barriers to make sure everything is okay … using these big old furry dogs,” Brownfield said.
Maverick and Apache have also supported wounded warriors as they transition back to their new lives, assisted victims of crimes during their interviews with military police and stood beside children who had to testify in court in the military judicial system.
Supporting military children, in fact, has become a very large part of Maverick and Apache’s responsibilities as therapy dogs. They, and Bandit before them, have escorted military children to their service member parent’s funeral when they’ve made the ultimate sacrifice.
“Maverick will escort children back to the burial sites [in Arlington National Cemetery] and he’s literally their rock to lean on,” Brownfield said. “He’ll lay there with them and sometimes [the children] lean up against him while he’s lying down and they’ll write a therapeutic letter to their fallen brothers, sister, mom or dad.”
Brownfield also explained that by having Maverick beside the children in these moments, the military spouse attending their spouse’s funeral also has a chance to take a moment to grieve on their own, knowing that their child is being looked after. In this way, all members of the Families of the Fallen can receive even just a brief moment of respite on an otherwise incredibly difficult day.
But notably, what Bandit, Maverick, Apache and all other USO therapy dogs provide is an integral part of the USO’s overall mission: giving our service members and military families a touch of home.
Life in the military can be challenging and oftentimes lonely, with service members, military spouses and military children all spending months or years apart from each other, as well as their extended families and friends. With constant moves to the next duty station every 1-3 years, it can be difficult to find a sense of belonging, which can have a huge impact on the morale of our troops. The USO strives to provide the military community with that feeling of “home away from home,” to let them know that they are not alone and that the sacrifices they make every day are not forgotten.
“When service members come in, it’s so sweet. They’ll say … ‘[seeing the dogs] gives me the strength to get through the next week before I can see them again,’” Brownfield said. “You know, we don’t realize, mentally, how hard it is for some of these service members. And that’s a big reason we do what we do.”
No matter the service member or where they go, USO therapy dogs are there to lift the military community’s spirits, one tail wag at a time.
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