Army veteran Matthew White had a difficult time adjusting to civilian life after serving two tours in Afghanistan from 2007–2010. Like so many veterans who have risked their lives protecting their country, he came back from duty a different person and was struggling with both physical and mental encumbrances.
Matthew White (far right) during one of his tours in Afghanistan.
In addition to coping with the loss of his leg in combat and learning how to walk again, Matt was also experiencing symptoms of PTSD. Though spared the hardship of hallmark symptoms such as flashbacks and triggers, he was prone to anxiety, sudden outbursts of anger, and insomnia. He was also using alcohol frequently to self–medicate.
Occupational Therapy Assistant Harvey Naranjo not only aided Matthew with his physical recovery, but also bonded with him and became a trusted friend. Naranjo employed the use of a facility trained K–9 named Sergeant Major Deuce, whom Matt also worked well with. When he saw that talk therapy wasn’t providing the necessary emotional relief, he suggested that Matt get a dog.
Matt was very hesitant at first. He had never owned a dog and had very little experience with them, nor did he feel that he needed a service dog. He wasn’t sure that Harvey was even right about him needing a companion animal, until he met Nike…
Harvey Naranjo happened to be at an adoption drive at the DC Hilton when he saw 6–month–old Nike and knew instinctively that this was the dog for Matt. The two met and it was love at first sight. He ended up adopting Nike on Veteran’s Day in 2013—a coincidence that further demonstrated their kismet.
As Matt’s first dog, there was a learning curve while he got used to Nike. He would ask Harvey and other friends what she was doing and they would tell him—“Being a dog!” It’s a learning experience that Matthew is still enjoying, but after almost 3 years of being together they are more in sync now. Nike has provided Matt with a level of companionship that has truly helped him come out of his shell and feel more like himself again.
Though she is not a certified therapy dog, being a constant in Matt’s life has helped him overcome many of the issues that he was having. Nike has rejuvenated Matt’s love of running and sports, and even joins him for the occasional pint at their local pub on the patio. She loves every human that she meets and will snuggle right onto their laps if she can. It was hard for Matt to comprehend that not everyone loves Pit Bulls and why they are so discriminated against.
“I had no idea of the stigma that Pit Bulls face until I got one. When I had to move last year, we couldn’t find a place to live because so many places wouldn’t allow Nike. But she wouldn’t hurt a fly—just like many vets who have PTSD. There are people who cross the street when they see her, but there are also people that run up to say ‘hi’ because of their love for Pit Bulls. People either love her or hate her—there’s never really an in–between.”
The similarities that Matt sometimes feels as a veteran to Nike’s discrimination as a Pit Bull has led him to become involved with Baltimore–based organization Show Your Soft Side.
Show Your Soft Side (SYSS) was founded by Sande Riesett in September of 2011 when she got tired of seeing a number of horrific animal cruelty stories in her home city of Baltimore, often at the hands of children. Riesett, who has spent most of her career as a creative director/copy writer for ad agencies in Washington, D.C., Baltimore, and London, said, “At the time, I thought about becoming a vigilante, but in the end opted to create advertising instead.”
What started as a campaign to have three athletes model for PSA posters about animals to put into schools “snowballed,” until eventually Sande traded in her paying clients to incorporate Show Your Soft Side as a 501(c)3 non–profit in 2013. Since then, they have worked with a number of athletes and celebrities (dubbed “Softies”) to bring awareness to rescue animals and raise funds for shelters across the country and around the world!
SYSS works extra hard to break down myths about rescue animals and breeds that are being regulated, such as Pit Bulls and Rottweilers. Incorporating “tough guys” such as athletes and veterans also helps show their soft side as well, and many of them have become staunch supporters of animal rights and/or have rescued pets of their own since getting involved with SYSS.
A friend told Sande about Matthew and Nike, but when she initially reached out to him, his modest nature prevented him from saying yes. However, as time passed, Matt’s love for Nike and mission to help overcome the stigma of both veterans and Pit Bulls won him over. “I don’t know why I waited so long,” he said.
Most recently, he participated in his second SYSS Pawject Runway, an annual “fashion” show with celebs, athletes, and all around amazing human beings “modeling” rescue animals instead of clothing.
Matt will also be featured in the upcoming Rescue Men calendar. The calendar doesn’t come out until September, but those who donate to the Rescue Men organization now will get a copy when it does!
Matthew and Nike (center) with Rescue Men founders Felicia Greenfield (left) and Jennifer Halpern (right).
Matthew said that he cannot imagine his life without Nike, and doubts there will ever be a time in his life when he doesn’t own a dog. He’s such a sweet dog owner that when Nike occasionally “kicks” him out of bed at night, he will go and sleep on his sofa instead. And Nike is such a sweet dog that she will wake up every hour to check on him and make sure he’s ok before crawling back into his bed. Awwwww!
“This is all really about her, and what she has done for me. I want others to know that you don’t need a service dog to receive the same level of love and companionship that a dog provides.”
In a recent Show Your Soft Side article, Matthew told SYSS Special Correspondent Carly McGee:
“With dogs, there is no judgement. She sits and listens to me vent. I talk to her more than I talk to most people.”
He also had some really great advice to give to fellow veterans who may still be struggling. He encourages them to talk to other vets who understand where they have been and what they are feeling, and if they have overcome their “bad spot,” then they should be a mentor to someone else. (Matthew is currently mentoring a 21–year–old Marine who, like himself, has suffered the loss of a leg.) He also advises that they have someone there with them, even if it’s a pet.
Since Nike entered his life, Matt has finished school, started volunteering at a local animal shelter, and it was just announced this week that he will be a new homeowner. No more worrying about the next move with Nike!
Matthew (center) on the plot of land his new home will be built on
He went on to state in the SYSS article:
“Pit Bulls get a bad rap, and so do vets. Just because some of us deal with PTSD doesn’t mean we’re crazy.”
And just because some dogs have done some bad things and have been portrayed poorly in the media, it doesn’t mean they’re all bad and deserve to face the discrimination that they do.
We are so thankful to Matthew for his service to our country and for all that he is doing now to support veterans and Pit Bulls alike.
Please consider donating to Show Your Soft Side or buying some of their fantastic swag. Donations and sales benefit rescue animals around the country and across the globe!
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