Stories about the bond between dogs and humans have been told repeatedly over the years, and yet each one is unique because each relationship is unique. Dogs become part of the family in many cases, and countless veterans have found them to be a source of unconditional love and catharsis. Service animals have been pivotal in the healing of veterans for a long time.
But just like humans, dogs can be subject to the negative sides of life — accidents, sickness, diseases, disabilities. Veterinarian bills can reach thousands of dollars just in finding the proper diagnosis, not to mention the time and money involved in treatment and recovery. Sometimes the human family finds they aren’t equipped to properly support their furry loved ones.
That’s where Hank & Eli’s Fund steps in. It’s a nonprofit out of Texas whose mission is to provide veterinary care for service animals and retired military animals. Coffee or Die Magazine spoke to William Cole, a former Army Ranger (C Company, 3/75), vice president of Hank & Eli’s Fund, and real estate agent in the greater San Antonio area.
The name of the fund has two stories behind it — Lance Cpl. Colton Rusk was a United States Marine dog handler who was killed in action in December 2010, and Eli was the name of his military working dog. “Following Colton’s passing, the Marine Corps actually decided to donate Eli back to the Rusk family where he could spend the rest of his life,” Cole said. “Colton Rusk and the Rusk family are the heart that beat within this organization, and while I never had the chance to meet Colton in person, we just hope we are making him proud from up above.”
Eli represents the military working dog component to the nonprofit, and Cole’s own story represents the service animal side. We asked him to share his story, illustrating the impact that service dogs can have on veterans, and why it’s so important for organizations like Hank & Eli’s Fund to exist in order to support them in times of peril.
When Cole separated from the military, he found himself in a downward spiral. He had tried everything the VA had thrown at him, and while his therapist had told him to consider a dog, he had never followed through with it. The weight on his shoulders was growing heavier, and he felt like he couldn’t break free of it.
“About a week before I was set to move to College Station, I saw some puppies on the side of the road. I pulled over and this family was selling Labrador retrievers. Hank saw me and dropped the bottle he had in his mouth and tried to climb out. Something made sense to me at a time when not a lot made sense, so I decided to get him. Hank slowly started pulling me out of a rut by forcing me to get up and move around and thus engaging me more mentally as well — taking him out, caring for him, exercising with him, feeding him. Over time, those things started moving me forward.
“It was still incredibly frustrating, because you have days where you take five steps backward after only taking two steps forward. It’s challenging, but you can’t give up, and Hank was the one who continued to push me.”
The relationship with Hank was working in the right direction, but it wasn’t a magical cure. At one point, Cole started giving away all of his own possessions — the TV, the furniture, everything. It came to a point where he thought he could just get rid of his own life, too. “I remember having a moment where I thought, ‘Is this it?’ Then Hank came around that corner simply happy to see me and I just couldn’t bring myself to take that next step. ‘I’ll do it tomorrow,’ I told myself, and I did that for a few days on a repeat pattern. No plan, no care in the world honestly.”
It was at that low moment, where his life was teetering on the edge of spiraling into complete disarray, when tragedy struck. Cole was searching for Hank after someone had left a gate open and the dog had escaped, when a black vehicle pulled up. “They rolled down the window when they saw me running and said, ‘Do you have a black Lab?’ the driver asked. My heart sunk and I knew that [Hank] had been hit.
“I believe a state trooper rushed Hank to the Texas A&M vet hospital. When I showed up, they were already attempting to stabilize him as he was in very, very poor condition. He had been hit by a car going nearly 50, 55 miles per hour. He had a tension pneumothorax and they were working on other issues as well. All I remember the veterinarian saying was ‘This is going to be very, very expensive, and he has about a 30% chance of living.’ Without hesitation, I gave them my massive fortune of $700 as a down payment so that they could then begin the more intensive and lifesaving work. After a double lobectomy and a nine-day hospital stay, I was left with a $16,000 veterinarian bill, which they were able to lower to $13,000.”
Hank was alive, but the work wasn’t done yet. “He had a long road to recovery and it was nearly a full-time job, but after what Hank had done and continues to do for me, I never once hesitated to show him that unconditional love that he shows me on a daily basis. That connection, between man and dog, is more powerful than any medication the VA has ever prescribed me.”
It’s these sorts of stories that live at the beating heart of Hank & Eli’s Fund. Started by Dr. Mike Moore out of Corpus Christi, Texas, the nonprofit typically works through referrals from veterinarians. They gather medical records for these service dogs or retired military working dogs, verify information of the dogs and their owners, and they speak directly to the veterinarian.
With two veterinarians on staff, Hank & Eli’s Fund is well equipped to make informed decisions regarding how and why they might provide support to an animal. Sometimes the support is financial, paying the bills after a local procedure is completed. Other times the support is practical, actually bringing in the animal and treating them personally.
Their treatments (or payments for treatments) don’t cover routine procedures like spaying/neutering, health checkups, or immunizations; rather, they tend to focus on the major obstacles like physical injury, cancer, amputations, heatstroke, serious surgery, and the like. These are the obstacles that can financially cripple a dog owner when they are just trying to save their dog.
Dogs can also be a lot of work — caring for them requires discipline, knowledge, and training (for the human as well as the dog). Another passion of Hank & Eli’s Fund is pairing the right dogs to the right veterans and ensuring that they receive proper training, which needs to be both high quality and local to the veteran.
To date, Hank & Eli’s Fund has assisted more than 100 veterans and service members free of charge and without any payment to the nonprofit’s volunteers. These have not been small operations — heart surgeries, TPLOs (tibial plateau leveling osteotomy), amputations due to certain types of cancer, back surgeries due to temporary paralysis, lifesaving heatstroke treatments, and more. They have added years to some dogs’ lives when they are suffering from a terminal illness, giving that veteran much more time to enjoy and say goodbye.
This is the heart of Hank & Eli’s Fund: a genuine love for our service members and their best friends.