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News | Oct. 10, 2023

Faithful service: Wisconsin Army Guard veteran provided with service dog

By Vaughn R. Larson Department of Military Affairs

Jay Wilson, a retired Wisconsin Army National Guard lieutenant colonel, took the mound before the Sept. 17 Milwaukee Brewers™ game at American Family Field™ in Milwaukee for the ceremonial first pitch.

And promptly dropped the ball — on purpose.

Wilson’s new service dog, Frosty, was at the mound with him, and after a few moments of instruction and coaching, picked up the baseball in her mouth and brought it to home plate.

Consider it part of Frosty’s training, as soon one of her main responsibilities will be to pick up items from the floor as Wilson recovers from an upcoming spinal surgery.

Wilson confided that the baseball was harder than Frosty’s favorite chew toy at home in Hellenville, Wisconsin so she wouldn’t take the ball from his hand. But she would pick the ball up from the ground as if it was a service task.

“On a nightly basis we were working with her,” Wilson said. “We borrowed some catcher’s equipment from a neighbor just so she was used to seeing some baseball gear.”

Wilson actually took two paths to get his service dog, Frosty.

The first path was more than 28 years long, beginning as an enlisted railway crew member in the U.S. Army Reserve, then becoming a cannon crewmember in 1997 with the Wisconsin Army National Guard’s 1st Battalion, 126th Field Artillery. Three years later he commissioned as a field artillery officer, and then the 126th Field Artillery converted to a logistics battalion.

Wilson deployed with the Wisconsin Army National Guard’s 64th Rear Area Operations Center to Fort Bragg — now known as Fort Liberty — in 2002. In 2004 he deployed to Iraq with Battery B, 1st Battalion, 126th Field Artillery, which was augmenting the Louisiana Army National Guard’s 1st Battalion, 141st Field Artillery. In 2007 he deployed to Afghanistan as an individual augmentee with the South Carolina Army National Guard’s 218th Brigade Combat Team as part of the 163rd Logistics Task Force.

“While I was there, they liked me so much they made me the Alpha Company commander,” Wilson said.

He deployed to Bosnia in 2011 as a logistics liaison in support of NATO Headquarters Sarajevo.

“I got called up with the 157th MEB when they went to Kosovo, and they took select people and sent them to a mission in Bosnia,” Wilson explained, “so there were five of us that went.”

The multiple deployments began to take a physical toll on Wilson, and he began suffering back issues while in Afghanistan. An MRI revealed fractured vertebrae and some slipped discs, which caused his feet to go numb whenever he ran. He injured himself further during the new Army Combat Fitness Test, to the point where he medically retired from service in May.

“I wound up in the hospital for a week,” Wilson said. “I couldn’t get out of bed. Now I can’t feel my right leg and my feet, permanently.”

He is scheduled for surgery next January in which a titanium cage will wrap around his spine to stabilize the fractured vertebrae and separate the damaged discs. One disc will also be removed. He will also have two rods inserted in his back.

Wilson embarked on the second path in February, when he applied for a service dog with Custom Canines Service Dog Academy of Madison, Wisconsin. He was informed that placement can take between three and five years.

In June, he was notified that a service dog had been found for his needs.

“The service dog will help me get out of a chair, get out of bed, pick up things on the floor, because I won’t be able to do anything — I’ll be pretty much in a seated position,” Wilson said. “I won’t be able to drive for three months, and then it’s a year recovery once they clear me for being able to drive and walk around.”

Frosty, a labrador retriever mix, has demonstrated a keen ability to pick up such items from the floor as pieces of paper and debit or credit cards. She will also help Wilson deal with PTSD symptoms.

Fairway Independent Mortgage Company, partnered with the American Warrior Initiative, has placed at least 315 dogs with 300 veterans. Frosty was presented to Wilson at American Family Field™ on July 21. Milwaukee Brewers™ pitcher Brandon Woodruff has been part of the Fairway service dog presentation for the past three years, and invited Wilson to throw out the first pitch at the Sept. 17 game.

“This is my favorite event every year, just to see that surprised reaction of the veteran being able to have a sidekick,” Woodruff said. “It gets better each year — it never gets old. You know, they go overseas and they lay their lives on the line for us to be able to play the game of baseball. I’m able to be here with my family to give back to him and see the smiles on his family’s faces and his face — that makes it all worth it.”

Nicole Meadowcroft, president of Custom Canines Service Dog Academy, explained why Wilson was able to be matched with a service dog after only a few months.

“We have quite an extensive waiting list, but it’s not first-come, first-serve,” Meadowcroft said. “It’s what matches that specific individual. On average, it could be a three-to-five-year wait.”

Louise Thaxton, the director and co-founder of the American Warrior Initiative, presented a grant to Wilson’s wife Heather to offset some of the expenses of caring for Frosty.

Frosty did not go home with the Wilson family that day, however — there remained weeks of training with Custom Canines. Wilson would work with the service dog on a weekly basis, learning basic commands and performing tasks such as closing and opening doors. But they also used the time to become more acquainted with each other.

“The first session that we had, she was like, ‘Who are you?’” Wilson recalled “She's looking at me, she's looking at someone else like, ‘Who's this person?’ And then, part of the training process is I sit down on the couch and we play together.”

After learning basic commands, Frosty would accompany Wilson to the store and help pick items off the shelves. Finally, there was a weekend home visit before Frosty was permanently placed in the Wilson home in early September. Now Frosty can be seen at Wilson’s side at his job.

“She’s been coming with me on a daily basis to work,” Wilson said. Then we go to all the stores and shopping and all that stuff together, so she’s well acclimated to the house and the family now. Things have been working out well — we’ve got a good bonding relationship going.”

For the past three years he has worked as a mechanical engineer for the Wisconsin Department of Military Affairs, doing projects related to National Guard facilities.