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Army veteran bonds deeply with DL-trained patriot assistance dog

Joe Buzay’s canine companion Frankie received the Companion Dog of the Year award from the Minnesota Veterinarian Medical Association. Army veteran Buzay, who suffers from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, said that Frankie has saved his life. SUBMITTED PHOTO

In the years before they met, both Frankie and Joe had been a little down on their luck.

Frankie was homeless and literally living on the streets when he was taken in by Aldrich, Minn., veterinarian Dr. Bridget King, founder of PAWS (Pets Abandoned, Wanting Support) in 2011.

The 2-year-old dog was also severely underweight and bearing red scars around his neck from the choke chain that a former owner had used to restrain him — scars he still bears to this day, though they are now hidden beneath a healthy coat of soft, thick fur.

“He was rescued by some people who were moving from the Twin Cities to Park Rapids,” King said. “They found him on Highway 71 near Sebeka, as they were going back to the Twin Cities to pick up another load of things to move.

“It was late on a Friday, and they were trying to find somebody to take him in. The Humane Society in Wadena was not open, and someone gave them my phone number, so he was brought to my house (in Aldrich, about three miles east of Wadena on Highway 10).”

King fell in love with the dog, a boxer/husky mix with such beautiful blue eyes that she immediately dubbed him Frankie — an homage to Frank Sinatra, the late movie star who was famously nicknamed “Ol’ Blue Eyes” in reference to his distinctive eye color.

Frankie was temporarily housed with several foster families in the Aldrich area, all volunteers with the PAWS program. But the ultimate goal of the PAWS program is to find “forever homes” for the pets they rescue, so when King heard about the Patriot Assistance Dogs (PAD) program housed by the Lucky Dog Boarding and Training Center in Detroit Lakes, she realized that the friendly, outgoing Frankie might just be an ideal candidate.

“So our rescue group donated him to the (PAD) program,” King said.

Joe Buzay, an 11-year U.S. Army veteran who had served as a military policeman in Korea, Germany, Honduras and Somalia — “I got my combat patch in Somalia,” he says — had been out of the military since 1994, but first began experiencing symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) in 2010.

Those symptoms led him to start drinking heavily, but even after he stopped drinking, things really didn’t get any better.

“I never believed in PTSD, until I got it … I thought I was going crazy,” says Joe. “Everything just fell apart. My whole world collapsed.”

The collapse didn’t happen all at once, however. It was more of a gradual, albeit steep, decline.

“I went and saw some counselors, and I went through a PTSD course in St. Cloud that summer, from April to June (of 2010),” he continued. “That course teaches you how to live with it (PTSD), and about all the aspects of it — the depression, the anxiety.”

Unfortunately, the lessons didn’t really take hold.

“In November of 2010, I took enough pills to drop a Clydesdale … a little bit of everything,” he said.

In all, Buzay downed about 100 pills, seemingly determined to put an end to the life that had become such a constant source of torment for him.

“The doctors didn’t think I was going to make it… my heart stopped twice,” he said. “They had me in the hospital in Alexandria, and then they flew me down to University Hospital in Minneapolis.”

At one point, his doctors told his family that even if he did survive, he would likely end up with brain and organ damage, Buzay said.

“But I woke up 10 days later, and everything was working,” he added — at least physically.

The mental and emotional healing would take considerably more time… and the help of a four-legged companion that he would meet a few months later.

“I had a real rough summer,” Buzay said. “I was just getting by. Then in the beginning of September (2011), my veteran’s service officer brought me up here to Detroit Lakes, and Lucky Dog.”

Buzay was introduced to the PAD program and its founder and lead trainer, Linda Wiedewitsch. He met three other dogs in the program before he and Frankie first laid eyes on each other — and it was truly a case of love at first sight, Wiedewitsch said.

“As soon as I saw him, I knew he was the one,” Buzay said. “I took him out for a little walk, and when I brought him back inside, he jumped up in my lap and looked back (at Wiedewitsch) with this big, s***-eating grin.”

“He gave Joe a big ol’ swipe (of his tongue) across the face, and looked at me like he was saying, ‘Just make me get down,’” Wiedewitsch recalled.

“Joe worked with him (Frankie) for a couple of months here at Lucky Dog,” she continued.

“But I was going to quit — I just couldn’t keep putting him back into the kennel every day,” Buzay said. “Every time, it got harder to leave him.”

But before Buzay could find the words to tell Wiedewitsch that he was leaving the program, she decided to ask him if he’d like to take Frankie home with him.

“For me, it was time for the dogs to be out there with the veterans, and not here with me,” said Wiedewitsch. “Joe’s bond with Frankie just came so fast, and it made no sense to keep him here anymore. So I sent him home with Joe.”

That was on Dec. 6, 2011 — a day that Joe will never forget.

“I got him, and my whole world changed,” Buzay said. “I guess he saved me from myself.”

That very first night after Joe brought him home, Frankie woke him up from a nightmare.

“He just laid right on top of my chest, licking my face,” Buzay said. “He wouldn’t let me get up until I calmed down.”

Though they don’t come nearly as often as they used to, “Frankie knows I’m going to have a panic attack before I do,” Joe added. “He’ll get up and lick my face, or rub up against me to get my attention. He gets me grounded again.”

“It’s great to see the progress that Joe has made since getting Frankie,” Dr. King said.

She recalled that, shortly after Frankie went to live with Joe, she invited Buzay to come speak about the program at a PAWS meeting, and how “he couldn’t even look at us in the face.”

Now, because of Frankie, Joe can stand up in front of a room of 400 people to accept an award on behalf of his four-legged best friend.

Earlier this winter, King nominated Frankie for the Companion Dog of the Year award from the Minnesota Veterinary Medical Association (MVMA) — and on Saturday, Feb. 8, he and Frankie made the trip from their home on the Rainy River (between International Falls and Baudette, near the Canadian border) to Minneapolis, to accept it.

“He deserves it,” Buzay said. “Before I had him, I basically had nothing. I was going through a divorce, I had no home…

“Since then, I’ve gotten a boat, a truck, a four-wheeler — and I’m in the process of buying a house on the Rainy River. He completely changed my life.

“Before I met Frankie I would leave the house about once every three weeks, at night, to get groceries. I was completely isolating myself. But I’m doing a lot better. Before, I used to think about suicide every day. Now, all I have to do is look in those beautiful blue eyes and it’s (the suicidal impulse) all gone.

“I still have problems in big crowds, but when I start getting nervous he just cuddles up against me. He gets me more involved with people. I’ll take him out for walks, and he’s such a striking dog that people will come up and ask questions about him. He’s the best detector of a person’s personality. And the unconditional love they (dogs) give to you, it’s amazing.”

Follow Vicki Gerdes on Twitter at @VickiLGerdes.

Vicki Gerdes

Staff writer at Detroit Lakes Newspapers for the past 16 years, currently editor of the entertainment and community pages as well as covering city council and the Lake Park-Audubon School Board. Living in DL with my cat, Smokey.

(218) 844-1454