"He gives me a sense of calm that I've never really had the last 13 years," retired Sergeant Major Kevin Bittenbender says of Kirby the Lab
Kirby the Labrador retriever is continuing his career of being "amazing."
Before becoming a trained service dog through America's VetDogs, Kirby served as a team pup and "puppy with a purpose" for the Houston Texans — the first NFL team to help America's Vet Dogs raise a puppy training to be a service dog.
Kirby also claimed one of canine athletics' top prizes, earning Most Valuable Puppy at the 2022 Puppy Bowl. But his most meaningful accomplishment occurred two months ago when he officially became the service dog of retired Sergeant Major Kevin Bittenbender.
SGM Bittenbender served 34 years in the United States Army and retired in 2018.
"I had my left leg amputated on February 17, 2022, due to burn pit exposure in Afghanistan. And I suffered from PTSD, a TBI, and peripheral neuropathy in my legs and hands. That neuropathy is due in part to my exposure to burn pit exposure. Between my mobility and my PTSD, I was doing my rehabilitation at Walter Reed Medical Center, and America's Vet Dogs just so happened to walk into my life at the time when I could really benefit," SGM Bittenbender tells PEOPLE.
The veteran matched with Kirby and then trained with the dog at America's VetDogs, so both were prepared for life together.
"Kirby is trained on PTSD and mobility. So he helps me on stairs, he helps me when I'm in my wheelchair, picking up items off the ground. I have nightmare disturbances, so he senses my nightmares, wakes me up, and allows me to go back to sleep more peacefully," SGM Bittenbender says of how Kirby assists him each day.
"He's just amazing. My sidekick, he's my battle buddy now as I had in the military," he adds.
Kirby comes from a line of heroes. The Labrador retriever is the cousin of Sully, Geroge H.W. Bush's service dog, who now works as a facility dog at Walter Reed National Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland,
"He's like the younger version of Sully. Yeah, he's identical. So it's pretty cool," SGM Bittenbender says.
Kirby's effect on SGM Bittenbender's life over the past eight weeks is more than a physical change.
"I'm more social; having him by my side enables me to be calmer and at peace in a crowded area. He's allowed me to extend myself," the veteran says.
Kirby was beside SGM Bittenbender for the final mile of the Pittsburgh Marathon, helping his owner complete the race, the first of five races SGM Bittenbender plans to run this year in honor of four fellow servicemembers: Major Hank Oficier, Master Sergeant Scott Ball, Sergeant Jan Organish, and Staff Sergeant Kody Tyler.
"I lost three of my guys on August 27, 2007, due to an ambush, and I always tried to do three events in their honor. Subsequently, I lost a fourth member of my team from injuries that he suffered that day as well. So I try to do events to live a life worth their sacrifice and to honor their names," SGM Bittenbender explains.
"Kirby just reinvigorated that sense of purpose in me. And he definitely gives me the equation that I like to live by, which involves the three Ps. One is purpose, the other's passion, and the other is part of something bigger than yourself," he adds.
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SGM Bittenbender hopes his experience inspires other veterans and first responders to explore if a service dog is a good fit for them, especially now that America VetDogs' wait to be matched with a canine is down from 4 years to 12 months or less.
"He gives me a sense of calm that I've never really had the last 13 years, and I really enjoy his company as he enjoys mine. I think that if anyone's on the fence about doing it, it is definitely worth pursuing," he says. "It's amazing the things a dog can bring you. You can have the most miserable day, but he thinks it's your best day."
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