By Sarah Schuster — CBSNewYork.com
NEW YORK (CBSNewYork) – You can hear the pride in Ric Bruckenthal’s voice when he talks about his son Nathan – a big, strapping guy with “muscles on top of muscles” who was also “just a big, fun-loving bear.”
A Long Island native, Nathan joined the U.S. Coast Guard in 1998. After being stationed over the years in Montauk, Washington State and Miami, he was one of the first Coast Guardsmen to be deployed to Iraq in early 2003.
“So he did a deployment, he came home, I saw him once or twice while he was home and he told me he was going back again,” Ric said.
As a Petty Officer Third Class, the 24-year-old deployed for a second time to Iraq in March of 2004.
“Shortly in the beginning of April, he told me his wife was pregnant and we were very happy about that,” Ric said. “Then on April 24, we were notified he was wounded in action.”
Nathan and his crew were attacked by a suicide bomber while inspecting a suspicious boat in the Persian Gulf.
When the bomb detonated, Nathan, along with two U.S. Navy sailors, were killed. Four other military personnel were injured.
Nathan’s death marked the first time a Coast Guardsman had been killed in action since the Vietnam War.
“And we hope he’s the last,” said Ric.
But Nathan’s name, service and sacrifice hasn’t been forgotten. It lives on through the work of a young Golden Retriever in Virginia.
Named in Nathan Bruckenthal’s honor, Nathan the puppy is being trained as a service dog with the group Veterans Moving Forward – a non-profit organization that provides therapy and service dogs to veterans with both mental and physical health challenges.
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The group was founded in 2010 by Karen Jeffries, a retired naval officer who wanted to help veterans seeking service dogs.
“Veterans Moving Forward was founded by vets to help vets move forward with their lives,” she said.
Nathan has spent the last year and half of his life being raised and trained in Virginia by Cyndi Perry.
Perry had been raising service dogs for people with disabilities for about 14 years when she was approached by VMF to work with Nathan the pup last year.
“You really need a steady dog to be a good service dog and that’s part of my job,” she said.
But training a puppy to become a service dog isn’t easy. It demands hours of formal training each day, teaching the dog a wide variety of commands – including how to open doors, turn on light switches and fetch a set of keys.
It also requires being inseparable from your dog, taking it everywhere you go, every day for up to two years.
For Perry, it means taking Nathan to work with her in and around Washington D.C.
“He truly gets an amazing experience. He gets the exposure to loud noises, to sirens, to elevators, to walking over grates, having pigeons fly in front of his face,” Perry said. “A wide variety of people, a wide variety of objects and sounds that he grows accustomed to that makes him a much better service dog.”
Nathan currently has 35 to 40 commands under his belt and is being trained to become a full service dog.
But while his formal training is still under way, Nathan, like all dogs that participate in VMF’s program, gets practice being a therapy dog for wounded troops at Veterans Affairs hospitals, medical centers and other military treatment facilities.
For most dogs, that means sitting quietly and letting wounded vets pet or talk to the dog as a kind of person-to-pup therapy session.
But for Nathan, Perry said it’s much more than that.
“Nathan is a very intuitive, sensitive pup. We will go into a situation, be it at Bethesda Naval Hospital or even other situations, and if I give him the release command to go say hello to folks, he’ll wander around, he’ll be polite and say hello and accept pets. But then he zeros in on one person and he walks over to that person. He’ll sit next to them or lean into them or put his head on their lap. And in most situations, that’s the person who has had the most severe stress or something has happened to them recently in their life and that just seems to be the person who needs the attention more.”
Perry said it’s that kind of instinct that makes Nathan stand out from other service dogs.
“Things like that intuitiveness has nothing to do with what I do as a trainer,” she said. “It’s inherent in the pup.”
Nathan has been in training now for more than a year. But it’s not all work and no play. Perry said Nathan gets plenty of time to just be a dog.
“We expect them to adhere to human norms so much of the time that I feel they really need those few hours in the evening to just let loose and do what dogs need to do,” she said. “If he wants to roll, he can roll. If he wants to go sniff another dog’s butt, he can sniff another dog’s butt. He can just be a canine.”
Nathan has also traveled the country. One of his trips was to New York City to meet Ric Bruckenthal and his family last year.
Nathan Bruckenthal’s daughter Harper, has also had the chance to play with the pup named after her dad.
“We’re very proud of our son and now we’re very proud of the dog,” Ric said.
In addition to Nathan, VMF currently has more than a dozen therapy dogs as well as eight assistance dogs in training.
Training puppies to become full service assistance dogs takes time and money. The industry standard for raising and training a service dog is between $35,000 and $55,000, according to Jeffries.
She said they’re always in need of donations, grants, corporate sponsorships and volunteers so more puppies can go through the highly specialized training and help the program grow.
“I’d like to take the 20 dogs we have now and next year, we’d like to see 50 and the year after that 75 or 100,” she said.
For Nathan, his time with Perry is almost over. By the end of the year, his training will be complete and he’ll be placed with a veteran who needs his help.
But for Perry, that moment will be bitter-sweet.
“It will rip my heart out. It’s something that I try not to think about,” she said. “He’s the eighth dog that I’ve trained but it does not get easier the more pups you do.”
She said while it will be hard to give up Nathan, she knows he has a greater mission.
“I get to give the love of a good dog to someone and a dog that can really help them be more independent — and that person, or whoever Nathan will go to — that person needs him more than I want him,” she said. “Nathan is just an incredible dog and things that I have seen him do with individuals and with people. He’s just an amazing pup.”
Wherever Nathan the dog ends up, Ric Bruckenthal said his son would be proud to know his memory is living on in a dog that’s helping other veterans.
“He was a dog lover and he would be very proud of this,” he said. “I think he’d be very, very pleased about this and I know he’d be happy this dog is going to go help somebody now.”
“Even if he was not the most perfect, right on, dead on service dog in the world, just his presence in hospitals and in various VA group sessions and things, it just changes people’s body language, it changes their attitude, it puts a smile on their faces,” Perry said. “These dogs love so unconditionally and they don’t judge and they’re really a wonderful companion to have. Then you get the added, amazing bonus that they are well-trained and that they can do a variety of things for the person.”
Bringing fallen her heroes, wounded warriors and man’s best friend together.
For more information about Veterans Moving Forward, including ways you can help or apply to the program, visit www.vetsfwd.org.