March 13 is National K9 Veterans Day
As Gina Winters gets ready each morning for her job as a civilian employee of the military in Germany, her yellow Labrador Retriever is at her side. Irma brings shoes, picks up dropped keys and bags, and serves as a brace if Winters needs to rise up from the floor. When Winters’ gait is off-balance, Irma nudges up against her legs to steady her.
Irma, a service animal, helps Winters manage migraines, traumatic brain injury, mobility, and equilibrium issues following injuries that included a broken back and, years later, a broken neck from a helicopter crash in Guam.
Winters was paired with Irma through K9’s for Veterans Abroad, a nonprofit launched in 2018 by University of Maryland Global Campus (UMGC) graduate Richard Rice to provide trained service dogs at no charge to former or current military members in Europe.
“It’s amazing what Irma is able to do,” Winters said. “I lose my sense of balance at times, and my grip. I get bilateral nerve impingement. There are myriad mobility issues that I deal with.” The dog also provides emotional support for Winters, who has PTSD.
Rice knows the value of a service animal. Two dogs have helped him navigate his own health challenges.
Rice served a year in Iraq, was injured, and then was given the wrong medication. A meteorologist with the military, he was medically retired in 2007. His long-term medical challenges include post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
“Medication wasn’t really helping, and I read and heard that a lot of people were getting good results from service animals,” Rice said. He took part in a pilot program that brought him his first service animal, Abby.
“They asked me if I wanted to do a three-year internship to train service dogs. I worked for them for about six years with dogs for children with disabilities,” he said. When he re-enrolled at UMGC for his social work degrees, he stepped away from the job and, after graduating, launched his own organization.
Rice received a bachelor’s degree in social science from UMGC in 2021, taking advantage of UMGC credits he earned at intervals—with interruptions for active duty in Iraq—beginning in 2004. In 2022, he completed an accelerated master’s program in social work through a collaboration between UMGC and Salisbury University in Maryland.
Rice, who holds the title of vice president at K9’s for Veterans Abroad, trains dogs and matches them with veterans who might benefit. He is helped in the training by Lumen, his service animal whose name means “light.” The 4-year-old black Labrador Retriever is Rice’s second service animal and the first he trained for himself.
“We refer to Lumen as Mommy because she helps train the other dogs. She’s the pack leader when we get a new dog to train,” Rice said. “It’s hard to train a new dog from scratch, but younger dogs like to mimic older dogs.”
Lumen looks humans in the eye, a technique that Rice said grounds people dealing with anxiety. She also has a range of other skills, including opening doors and turning lights on and off.
Rice, who lives in Germany, said service animal therapy sessions to manage his own health problems were what ignited his interest in social work. That, in turn, pushed him to find a solution for overseas military members caught in a Catch-22: They could not get U.S. service animals because they were outside the United States, and they could not get service animals in Germany because of the concern that they would not remain in the country.
When Winters heard about K9’s for Veterans Abroad from someone at Landstuhl Regional Medical Center near Ramstein Air Base, she had already been researching service animal programs. She fell directly into the niche filled by Rice’s nonprofit.
Winters spent a year going through training with Rice and Irma before she took the dog home. She was the third applicant that K9’s for Veterans Abroad matched with a service animal.
Winters did bomb disposal for the Navy for 20 years before retiring. In her civilian position, she now drafts policy and training recommendations focused on counter-improvised explosive devices and counter-unmanned systems. Her work covers sea, land, and drone threats to servicemembers in Europe and Africa.
To date, Rice has placed eight dogs. One recipient subsequently moved with the dog to the United States where the servicemember was receiving medical treatment. Another dog is in a household in the Netherlands, where its border touches that of Germany. The remaining dogs are in Germany.
Rice said it can take up to two years to train a young dog, and there are nearly two dozen people on his organization’s waiting list.
“I have to match the dogs to the person, to their environment, to whether they are active or not, have children or not,” Rice said. One person who applied to the program has been waiting for a hypoallergenic dog. Some of the dogs are donated by breeders in the United States, but K9’s for Veterans Abroad must cover the cost of transporting the animals to Europe.
Rice would like to expand the work but he doesn’t yet have enough funding. All marketing and promotion is by word of mouth.
A chain of thrift shops in Germany provides some funding, which is used for care and feeding of the dogs in training. The USO and Red Cross also provide limited funds, and the nonprofit has received money from individual donors. K9’s for Veterans Abroad is currently seeking U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs approval, which will open the door for the VA to cover veterinary care of service animals.
Currently, Rice receives no salary and the organization’s board members are all volunteers.
One of those board members is Jack Cope, the husband of dog trainer Cindy Cope and a retired Enterprise car rental executive previously in Europe. Jack Cope, now the owner of business advisory company Cope Consulting LLC, which focuses on mental health and wellness programs, serves as the board president for K9’s for Veterans Abroad.
The board’s treasurer is UMGC Professor of Writing and Literature Geri Henderson. She met Rice when he enrolled in her courses in Germany, two years before he launched K9’s for Veterans Abroad. Henderson brings an emotional support animal to classes with her, and Rice approached her about providing the small dog, Jami—for Henderson’s childhood home, Jamaica—with additional training.
Rice said Henderson took an interest in his academic path.
“She helped motivate me,” he said. “We bonded and clicked over time, and she became an important part of my life. I asked her if she would be a board member.”
Henderson described Rice as “one of the most giving, sensitive, kind people” and noted that his degrees in social work and his experience training dogs come together in a way that is useful for servicemembers seeking assistance.
The dog training and the program are helped by volunteers who take dogs to USO dinners and to visit the wounded and medical personnel at hospitals. Seven months ago, Natasha Davis, the wife of an active-duty Air Force member in Germany, joined those volunteers.
“We had recently lost our two dogs and we wanted to do some fostering or work with pets. I looked into fostering with humane societies here, but I don’t speak German,” Davis said. “Then I happened to stumble across a posting saying they needed some help with fostering or giving fosters a break or going with servicemembers.”
She connected with K9’s for Veterans Abroad and now regularly takes service animals to USO events and dinners, as well as to Landstuhl Regional Medical Center to visit wounded warriors.
“I immediately fell in love with the program. You see how people’s attitudes change when they are around the dogs. They really come out of their shells to chat or cuddle the animals,” she said. “A lot of these people have been deployed or are in the middle of deployment and haven’t seen or pet their dogs in a long time. It’s calming and relaxing for them.”
As a volunteer, Davis not only shows the dogs, she also explains the program and, if asked, connects people to Rice.
“You can see that Richard truly cares about the dogs he’s training and the veterans he’s working with. He’s very passionate about the program.”
Davis said taking the dogs to the hospital twice a week also allows doctors and other medical professionals see the value of the program. She continues her training with the dogs and said even her children, ages 7, 9, 11, and 12 get in on the act.
“The kids have all done training sessions,” she explained.
Winters said volunteers like Davis are key to the program. “Even though they might not necessarily do the training, they support the program and enable people like Richard to really serve veterans,” she explained.
Winters said one of her dreams is to see universities provide courses or certification for people interested in service animal programs. “I think universities would be a wonderful mechanism for support,” she said.