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Companions for Heroes
Group pairs shelter dogs with veterans in need
Veteran Sarah Davis, Bloomingdale, and her service dog Bruno, left, chats with Companions for Heroes founder David Sharpe and his service dog, Darby, as the two wait for the official presentation of a Petco Corporation donation of $50,000 to benefit the organization that pairs dogs rescued from shelters with military service members and law enforcement officers. - photo by JULIE LAVENDER/staff

A 3-month-old pit bull rescue named Cheyenne, with her innate puppy curiosity and a healthy dose of devotion for her rescuer, unknowingly saved her owner’s life with one sloppy lick on the cheek.

Since that time in 2002, Companions for Heroes, a nonprofit founded in her honor, has rescued more than 4,000 dogs — and, ultimately, hero companions — globally, particularly in the state of Georgia.

“When I returned from Saudi Arabia in 2002 after my first deployment following 9/11, a buddy of mine who was deployed in Afghanistan committed suicide,” David Sharpe, founder of Companions for Heroes, explained during a visit Saturday to Petco in Statesboro. “I became an alcoholic — survivor’s guilt.

“I took a .45 pistol, loaded it, charged it and pushed my 3-month-old pit bull rescue, Cheyenne, out of my bedroom and closed the door. The latch clicked, and I sat down on the floor and put the gun in my mouth.

“I sat on the floor, crying. Cheyenne came through the door and licked my face.”

Sharpe said he has no idea how the rescue got through the closed door, except what he calls “divine intervention,” but her actions saved his life and he was determined to take care of her, just as she had taken care of him.

In fact, during another deployment, when Sharpe struggled emotionally, the thought of coming home to Cheyenne was what kept him going.

“Some things happened that could have triggered similar consequences, but all I wanted to do was get back to her.”

When Sharpe got out of the military in 2005, he began work with the United States intelligence community in Washington, D.C., and it was during that time that he started Companions for Heroes in 2009. Companions for Heroes is a regional nonprofit that provides service and companion animals obtained from shelters to military personnel and first responders recovering from psychological challenges suffered while serving their country.

Now located in Brunswick, Sharpe said that Statesboro is near and dear to his heart, as both of his parents are Georgia Southern graduates.

On Saturday, Companions for Heroes received a $50,000 grant from the Petco Foundation. The check was presented at Statesboro’s Petco location and was one of five in that amount presented across the country.

“All 1,500 Petco stores nationwide accept donations throughout the year,” said Karen Meader, regional program manager of Petco Foundation, “to support various service, working and therapy animal organizations. Presentations like this are being made all across the country today.”

Missie O’Neal, chief operating officer of Companions for Heroes, said the organization was thrilled to accept the check during Petco’s Helping Heroes event because it allows the public to see how their donations are being used.

Two veteran recipients of dogs from Companions for Heroes were on hand Saturday for the event.

Josh Polley from Savannah said that nightmares due to traumatic experiences while serving in the military plagued him frequently before acquiring his service dog, Jeri. Companions for Heroes paired Polley with Jeri, paying adoption fees and training costs.

Sarah Davis from Bloomingdale said that situations that took place while she was in the military caused her to have post-traumatic stress disorder, though she was unaware at the time.

“There were tell-tale signs, but I didn’t know it then.”

After four and a half years in the military, Davis returned to college and completed coursework and internships and began a job at Chatham County jail.

“My work there brought out PTSD symptoms,” Davis said. “And when I went back to the VA, I was diagnosed then.”

Davis suffered with difficulty leaving her home, going into new situations and being in public places.

But once she was paired with Bruno back in April, her whole outlook has changed.

“My gym for seven years closed, and I tried to go to another one. I couldn’t make myself get out of my car to go in. I just sat in the parking lot. But, once I got Bruno, I was comfortable walking him around to acclimate him to the new place, and he helped me acclimate to a new gym.”

Personal stories from veterans like Polley and Davis are the reasons “the Petco Foundation proudly supports organizations like Companions for Heroes,” Meader said.

The foundation has invested more than $14 million in total to support the animals who work to save and improve lives across the nation and world.

Collections are ongoing and can be dropped off at the local Petco store on Henry Boulevard in Statesboro Crossing or donated online.

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