Warriors Choice Foundation Matches Highly Trained Canines with Combat Veterans
Anthony Longo, Founder and CEO of Warriors Choice Foundation, a 501(c)3 charitable organization, never wanted the mission to be about him. The Schenectady, New York native came from humble beginnings before joining the Marine Corps in 2004 and serving two combat deployments in Fallujah, Iraq, through 2008 as a radio operator for the 2nd Battalion 6th Marine Echo Company.
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After his honorable discharge, Anthony relocated to Florida to pursue a career in fire rescue as a firefighter paramedic. He was the leader of his Fire Academy class in Coral Springs, but in his words, “I was itching to do something a bit different.” A connection with a friend in Miami led to an offer of a gig as a contractor medic, an opportunity Anthony enthusiastically accepted. He then obtained his National Registry Paramedic license, enabling him to deploy to Afghanistan from 2012 through 2017, where he worked under the State Department with a private company, providing diplomatic security.
“I met some really cool people,” Anthony recalls. “Because I spent so much time overseas, only coming home for about fifteen days per year, I traveled Europe and did most of the things I wanted to do.” However, within that time period, he noticed a troubling development. “I started seeing many people committing suicide. I’d been with them in the military and they just weren’t adjusting. I reflected on my own experience being a tough period for me, too. When I first got out of the military, I didn’t adjust well. In my first college semester, I enrolled in a bunch of courses, twenty-one and a half credit hours, believing I had to catch up to my peers. It took a lot out of me, but being overseas in Afghanistan, I saw things from different perspectives than here in the States. And I could not wrap my head around it.”
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Because he didn’t feel safe leaving his long-term girlfriend alone while he was overseas, Anthony looked into getting a dog, which resulted in the adoption of his Belgian Malinois, Bourbon, the first dog to complete the WCF service dog training program. After working with Bourbon, Anthony sought out the top trainers in the business, including French Ring, Mondio Ring, and Heavy BK, to observe what they were doing.
“The ability to work with an animal in its most primal state was fascinating,” he says. “These guys were competing at a very high level. It wasn’t like your Petsmart kind of style training. I fell in love with it almost instantly.”
Over time, he developed a solid understanding of this specialized training and conceived a new mission. “I saw what it was doing for me,” he explains. “Around 2015, it took shape. I started asking, ‘How long are the waiting lists for these service dogs? How much do these service dogs cost?’ When I realized what some of these dogs could do and noticed the obedience level of certain dogs I trained with, I wanted to focus on what I could possibly bring to the table.”
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That led him to figure out ways to make getting service dogs more accessible to veterans and help them be more productive with their dog, instead of just handing it over with no sense of ownership.
Anthony sought people of similar minds to join him on the journey. “I wanted to make this a progressive kind of workshop for combat veterans and service dogs to guide them on the path. Nobody knows their animal better than the veteran. It’s like anything else, either you work it or you don’t, but either way, you will see the results.”
He admits that like many other veterans, he was introverted when he first got out of the military. “I didn’t care for many social activities because it skeeved me out to see how blasé everybody was, with no real understanding or grip on what’s out there in the world.” PTSD is a problem, but, “Whatever trauma I experienced led me to become a paramedic,” Anthony explains. “It led me down a path where I didn’t want to feel helpless when I encountered someone in need. I wanted to find something that focused and resonated with me and my particular situation.”
He founded the Warriors Choice Foundation in 2016 to help hyper-vigilant combat veterans to use that function as a core concept with their dog to find ways to turn it into a positive from a detriment. “It’s the ability to give guys a sense of who they are again and tell them the PTSD is not a problem. What can we do to push forward? That’s why I developed this program with the service dogs. We ask our veterans, ‘What do you need as a person? How can we provide it for you? Are you willing to throw your ego at the door?’”
The Warriors Choice Foundation provides a service that goes far beyond the VA, with its limited budget and bureaucracy. Anthony says, “If professional athletes can get this type of service, why can’t our veterans who have fought in a war? These guys need more holistic programs, not just the ‘pill mill of here take this, take that. Here’s this laundry list of what we think you need, but let’s not go underneath the hood to identify the problem.’”
Once a combat veteran applies for a service dog, they come down to Jupiter a couple of times, first to get an impression of how they interact with the dogs. “They’ll spend four or five days, and it gives me enough time to see their work with all the dogs,” Anthony says. “I want to see if they did their reading, if they participated, and if they understand the concept of what we’re doing because much of it is cognitive function. It’s helping guys with TBIs and PTSD to move and work through those barriers, problem-solve, and think outside the box the way they used to. My approach with the dogs is, ‘until you go with your human, this is what I need you to do for me. Once you go with your human, you’re gonna continue to do what he asks, but let him give you that love and affection all the time.’ It was cool to understand the psychology behind it and really work with the animals.”
Anthony admits that the Warriors Choice Foundation is not for everybody. However, he actively builds relationships with other organizations that might be able to help guys that are not a fit for his program. “I’m not in this to be a millionaire,” he says. “I have not taken a salary over the past six years. To me, it’s about the gift of being able to help somebody in need to move beyond.”
To learn more about the Warriors Choice Foundation, make a donation, or find out about upcoming events, visit https://warriorschoice.org/.
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