Air Force Sergeant August O’Neill propelled down from a Black Hawk helicopter to a roaring crowd at the opening ceremony of the Invictus Games on Sunday night. No one was more excited to see him arrive than Kai, his service dog.
Retired Special Operations Command Sergeant Leonard Anderson stood in the center of the podium with a gold medal hanging around his neck after winning the 100-meter freestyle; at his feet, his service dog, Azza; smiling, wagging and, as always, protecting him.
In combat, man’s best friend can also become his greatest protector. Both men say they might not be alive today if it were not for their service dogs.
“Everything I do, everything I’ve ever competed in, everything ever since the injury has mostly been with her,” Anderson told ABC News’ Bob Woodruff after winning his gold medal. “I might not be here without her.”
Azza and Anderson were together when they were struck by an IED on July 28, 2012, a mile from their base camp in the Kandahar Province in Afghanistan. Azza prioritized Anderson’s life over her own, following and shielding him as he was taken on a stretcher to a helicopter to safety. Now, years later, she is retired from duty, but still always at his side.
O’Neill's lower left femur was shattered and his right tibia fractured after he sustained gunshot wounds to both legs. More than three years later and after 20 surgeries, he made the decision to amputate his left leg. Kai came into his life during his recovery and trained to become O’Neill’s support in all areas.
“He does bracing -- if my leg gets fatigued, he’ll lean up against me,” O’Neill told Woodruff.
Their presence is felt as both competitors strive for gold at the Invictus Games in Orlando, Florida, this week. On the court or poolside, both dogs play important roles in their owner’s success -- and are there with them on every podium.
“He’s my best friend. He’s been with me through the toughest times, and the best times,” O’Neill told Woodruff on the volleyball court after winning the semi-final.
Their successes in combat and in competition are shared. Both competitors have taken home medals in their respective sports, and each dog has earned the prize with them.
“When I go up here and I win a medal or two, it’s her earning it too,” said Anderson, with Azza lying at his feet. “She’s just not competing in the sport.”