Vernon Hanson was facing pretty dire circumstances. Early on the morning of Dec. 18, 2018, he left his house in West Palm Beach for an appointment at the VA Hospital in Miami. When he came home several hours later his world turned upside down.
As he arrived, he saw water coming out from beneath the garage door. When he opened the door to his house, there was smoke; it was hazy, and he could barely see through it. He sped to the far end of his house where he kept the dog kennel, slid the glass door open, and yanked the kennel out, but it was too late. His beloved service dog Meghan did not survive the fire.
Although the fire was out by the time he got there, Vernon called the fire department to come take a look. Unfortunately, the water damage from their hoses caused the most extensive damage.
“They shot so much water inside, the only thing that survived was my roof, the cinderblock, and the garage,” says Vernon. “Everything else inside, including new furniture, floor, and cabinets, everything I owned was destroyed.”
He had only lived in that house for four months.
As Vernon processed everything that had just happened, two Red Cross Disaster Action Team (DAT) responders arrived. His insurance was covering the cost of a motel, but the Red Cross provided him with clothes, shoes and financial assistance that Vernon used to cover basic needs like washing his clothes.
Vernon says he was astounded because he had never seen that happen where they show up after a fire. They showed genuine concern. “I have done so much for so many other organizations, including the military, and I belong to all these other groups, but they didn’t show up. The only one that did anything was the Red Cross.”
The DAT responders also learned about Meghan, Vernon’s black Labrador whom he had gotten her two years prior in Houston when he was visiting his eldest daughter. A neighbor told them that NASA had a kennel for rescue dogs. Vernon used to train show dogs, so he trained Meghan to perform basic tasks to help him because he is disabled due to several injuries sustained during his military service.
Vernon, who is originally from Pine River, Minn., retired from the U.S. Navy after serving for 20 years and 29 days. He had an illustrious career. He was injured in Vietnam by a rocket explosion two days before his third year there. He was sent to Bethesda and after he recuperated was assigned to Naval Intelligence Command where he worked in covert operations. He also served as an intelligence specialist with Naval Criminal Investigative Service (NCIS) in Scotland from 1975-79. He was an imagery analyst on the USS Independence during the five-day invasion of Granada in 1983, and he survived the 1983 bombing of a Marine compound in Beirut, Lebanon.
Vernon’s community service also extended to his role as a volunteer with the Spotsylvania Volunteer Rescue Squad, an organization he was with for over 20 years, five of those as a captain. He was awarded the National USO Volunteer Award for his service and his name is on a plaque in the Bob Hope Building in Washington, D.C. He also taught First Aid and CPR for the Red Cross in Virginia for over 20 years before moving to Florida in 1988.
From the DAT report, word of Vernon reached Heidi O’Sheehan, Director of Service to the Armed Forces (SAF) in South Florida. She contacted Vernon and opened a critical community service case, telling him she would do her best to find an organization that could provide a service dog for him.
“For many service members, their service animal is not only their helper but also their companion, so it was very devastating [for Vernon],” says Heidi. “I really came to care about him and his situation, so I am glad that the Red Cross was able to help him in this way.”
With another caseworker, they started calling national service dog organizations and investigating. Unfortunately, they found out that most had a two to three year waiting list. They were also not local to South Florida, which also proved prohibitive for Vernon since the person must train with the dog before receiving it.
Through a Google search, she finally found Canines Assisting Military Operators (CAMO) and Mike Lorraine in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla. She sent Mike a brief bio on Vernon and explained his situation. Mike said he could help so Heidi connected them.
Mike has been a professional dog trainer for 20 years and founded CAMO in 2015 with a mission to rescue shelter dogs and train them to be service dogs for disabled veterans. CAMO donates the dogs at no cost to veterans through financial gifts. The program has saved the lives of countless veterans and shelter dogs.
“The most rewarding thing I’ve done is taken a rescue dog, trained it to a high level and placed it with a veteran free of charge,” says Mike.
Mike invited Vernon out to his property to do a demonstration and had a few dogs he had been training at that point, but felt Boogie, a Dutch Shepherd mix, was the best fit.
Vernon and Boogie started training together in the spring of 2019, five to six days a week for several months. “The hardest part of the program is getting a person’s handling up to speed,” says Mike, who not only trains the dog to do general tasks, but also customizes the training based on the veteran’s needs. “Luckily, Vernon was local so he could spend a lot of time here training [with Boogie].”
By November 2019, Mike knew he was ready. Vernon had done the hard work. And he knew Vernon loved Boogie and would take care of him.
Mike notes that “Vernon has maintained Boogie’s level of proficiency and that makes me super happy. We spend so much time honing skills and handling that he must keep up with training.”
These days, things still aren’t totally back to normal for Vernon, but he has Boogie by his side, and he is grateful for that.
“It made me feel really good that [the Red Cross] actually sounded like they wanted to help, and they did. They promised me something and came through with it. They took care of me like they said they would,” says Vernon.
“At one point, Vernon asked me, ‘Why are you helping me?’,” says Heidi. “I said, “Because you served our country and the Red Cross is here for you for life! He was really astonished and had no idea, as many do not, that the Red Cross provides this assistance, but it is truly a unique and important part of [what we do].”
Vernon’s story demonstrates the many ways in which the Red Cross provides hope and help to those who have experienced a disaster. DAT volunteers are ‘first responders’ in an emergency, offering assistance and resources to people affected by a home fire. SAF caseworkers help military members and veterans get whatever help they need.
If you would like to become involved in this important work, please visit redcross.org/SouthFlorida.
To learn more about CAMO, visit camofoundation.com.
Written by Estefania Garcia
Photos by Estefania Garcia