By: Clifton Brown, Vice President of Insurance Operations at AAFMAA
One of the things AAFMAA does best is find strategic partners who share our mission of supporting the military community, including AAFMAA Members, military families, Veterans, and servicemembers. One of our newest partners is Veterans Moving Forward (VMF), a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization headquartered in Dulles, Virginia, which provides service dogs, facility dogs, and emotional support dogs to Veterans with physical and/or mental health challenges at no cost to the Veteran or their family.
For more than 143 years, AAFMAA has provided our own superlative service and support to the military community. Through our partnerships, we are able to expand awareness of our partners’ resources and the beneficial services that they, too, provide.
To dive deeper into what VMF does and get a behind-the-scenes look at what resources their amazing services are providing to those who have served, Clifton Brown, AAFMAA’s Vice President of Insurance Operations, recently met with Veterans Moving Forward. Here is his account of that visit:
This past June I was introduced to LTC, Gordon Sumner, Jr, RET who was visiting Justin Pearson, VP for Membership Development at AAFMAA’s Reston Campus. Gordon is a long-term AAFMAA Member and also President and CEO of Veterans Moving Forward. It’s always great to have a Member visit our offices, but our meeting with Gordon was so interesting and inspiring in other ways, I’d like to share.
Gordon’s passion to help Veterans is palpable and personal. Even his business card is memorable with a copy of one of VMF’s dog in training, Ashley. Ashley is named in memory of Ashley White, First Lieutenant, U.S. Army.
Gordon shared a story about Zamp the Wonder Dog.
“A year ago, VMF placed Service Dog Zamp with Jim “Doc” Anderson, an Air Force veteran who suffered severely with PTSD and who attempted suicide three times. Jim served as a mass casualty officer. Zamp is named in honor and memory of Marine legend Louis Zamperini.
Jim says that having Zamp has been a life-altering experience. His entire attitude has changed providing him with a totally different outlook on life. They’re together 24/7, attending events, poker and bridge games at the Clubhouse. During Jim’s recent back surgery, Zamp rode in the ambulance and staying in the hospital for four days.
Jim states that “Zamp is an incredibly special Service Dog and everyone who has meet him agrees - that he is special. Since he came into my life full-time, he has made a major difference in my life as witnessed by my wife, therapists, and psychiatrists all who agree that they have seen a change in me that they have not seen in the 20+ years that I have been in counseling. But all that has changed since Zamp entered my life. He is a stabilizing force in my life.”
I immediately wanted to know what I could to do help. Gordon first asked if I was an Amazon shopper — ah, yes! He mentioned that for no additional cost, if I placed all my Amazon orders through smile.amazon.com and select Veterans Moving Forward as my designated charity, they would receive an automatic donation based on my purchase. Check that, done! But honestly, I wanted to do more.
Visiting their website, www.vetsfwd.org, I clicked on “Volunteer” selected “Canine Team Volunteers” and applied to be a Puppy Sitter. Puppy Sitters care for puppies intermittently on a weekend or temporary basis, when puppy raisers have an emergency, take vacation, or are unable to care for the puppy. VMF confirmed they had my application and asked me to visit the office to meet with VMF’s head trainer, Kathleen Poulson.
Several weeks later, I visited VMF and met Gordon in the front office. He gave me a tour of their facility and introduced me to his staff, as well as the dogs when that had a break in their training. He then shared that the organization wants to move to a larger facility with more options that will allow them to enhance their training in various ways.
So, what is the VMF facility like? Here are some of the things I witnessed:
- Happy dogs. Most of the dogs were on duty in various settings. They have office, living, and bedroom setting where they can train their dogs in different ways.
- The dogs’ attention to their people was amazing. A trainer sneezes and the dog will get tissues. A trainer asks for water and the dog goes to the refrigerator, opens it, grabs a water bottle, and brings it to the trainer. (Pro Tip:- I was warned to wipe down any water bottle if I ever grabbed one from the fridge.) The truly remarkable activity occurred in the middle of the conversation, when a trainer put their face in their hands and let out a big sigh. The dog got up and wiggled its nose under the trainer’s hands to offer comfort. Can you imagine how this could help a Veteran in need?
- Happy staff. It was apparent that everyone realized the importance of their mission. They shared stories of how they touch lives. Their commitment to assuring the best for a Veteran and their dog came through. Moreover, they don’t just drop off a dog when it’s matched to a Veteran — they spend a considerable amount of time in the new setting to make sure there is a smooth transition. VMF also tries to locate local veterinarians that can care for the dog at pro bono costs in an effort to further support the Veteran. Amazing.
- Happy volunteers. Several people were there walking the dogs and taking them out for breaks. Gordon advised me that, last year, volunteers amassed over 15,000 volunteer hours — and that was probably under-reported. Many of their volunteers come for service hours and stay for the love of what they are doing.
Speaking to Gordon and visiting the VMF office was a highlight for me this year. I encourage each of you to visit vetsfwd.org and read about the wonderful things they are doing to support our Veterans in need of service pets.
And you can help, too. Spreading the word and inspiring other AAFMAA Members to share opportunities like these within your circles of influence is a win/win for the entire military community.
September is Service Dog Awareness Month. Learn more about service pets here: