On the Road with Gander and Operation Fetch

Written by on September 23, 2015 in Sense of Purpose

Operation FetchLon Hodge and Gander are on a mission. Through Operation Fetch, the nonprofit organization founded by Hodge, the two have traveled thousands of miles throughout the heart of America to educate communities, participate in an endless stream of fundraisers, interviews and talks to service groups. They’ve visited hundreds of schools, nursing homes, and hospices, and participated in dozens of Planned Acts of Kindness (PACKS).

When you consider how active these two are and how many lives they’ve touched, it’s hard to imagine that before Gander came into his life, Hodge was so crippled by the effects of post-traumatic stress disorder (P.T.S.D.) he couldn’t bring himself to leave the house. “I was completely, horrifyingly debilitated,” Hodge remembers.

I know addiction, poverty, VA battles, and suicide, near death from torture and more…. I’ve seen the darkest side of humanity. I survived by doing my best to help other people suffering along with me. I try now to do the same. Gander and a host of loving friends have changed that. Now it’s time to pay back and pay forward. ~ Lon Hodge

I learned about Lon and Gander quite by accident in the process of working on a fundraiser to sponsor a service dog for a veteran. Their story touched my heart and inspired me, just as it has thousands of others, and I’ve followed their journey ever since.

The Story of Lon and Gander

Lon Hodge served in the military from 1973 to 1981 working in the medical corps where he faced the harsh reality of battle field injuries on a daily basis. Though he eventually transitioned from military to civilian life, the legacy of his experience in Vietnam remained ever present and included panic attacks and horrific nightmares which he suffered regularly for nearly 10 years. Rather than fading with the passage of time the nightmares increased in their impact and frequency and Lon was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (P.T.S.D.) and severe arthritis caused by an autoimmune disorder. By that time, he was so overwhelmed by fear and anxiety attacks that he couldn’t leave his house and barely slept.

Lon’s turning point came in 2012 when he first learned about service animals. With a glimmer of hope that he hadn’t felt in a very long time, he contacted Freedom Service Dogs in Denver, a nonprofit group that trains rescue dogs to work with veterans as well as with children, the elderly and the disabled. He went through the interview and consulting process, and seven months later he was matched with his service dog, a lab-poodle mix named Gander.

Enter GanderOperation Fetch

Gander was rescued just days away from being euthanized in a Colorado shelter, enrolled in an extensive training program for service dogs, and ultimately introduced to his “Battle Buddy” Lon Hodge.

Hodge admits the transition period came with unexpected challenges, first and foremost was the discomfort of being out in the public eye once again where he faced endless questions about his “condition” … but there were also issues relating to the lack of understanding about the role of service dogs.

Gander saved my life and continues to rescue me. I love this dog as much as anyone or anything in my life. He allows me to function in situations that are otherwise difficult. I respect his skills, his loyalty and know every nuance of his special and complex personality. He is my friend, my family and my connection to all that is good. Please recognize him, not as a dog, but as an essential part of my life and well-being. ~Lon Hodge

Operation FetchThousands of faithful followers have also learned to love the charming and intrepid Gander. Thanks to regular updates on their Facebook page, and a steady stream of Gander shots feeding his fans hunger to see the lovable pooch as much as possible, Gander has literally become an icon as evidenced by the fact that in 2012 the Gander page had around 8,000 Likes and today it’s over 237,000 followers on Facebook and another 75,000 on Twitter!

Hodge shares stories of their travels, about the people they meet, and all the ways in which Gander shows compassion to the injured veterans. Lon’s special gift is that no matter where they are, you wish you were there with them, and many members of their community have taken the opportunity to meet Lon and Gander personally whenever they are on the road.

I’m bound to do this mission of representing disabled vets, I have no choice anymore. Gander is so personable and so loved, that my message actually carries weight and thousands of vets depend on me to tell their stories of pain. I sometimes question whether I want that responsibility because I relive their pain, but it’s a noble task that I now realize I’m addicted to. ~Lon Hodge

Gander Honored with 2014 AKC Service Dog Award

On Aug. 6 the American Kennel Club (AKC) announced the 2014 recipients of the Service Dog Award. Gander is the first ever “mixed breed” dog to win the AKC award! The group said Gander has made major strides in raising public awareness on how dogs can help disabled veterans.

I had no idea what was going on when they called. They said numerous people nominated Gander. At first I thought it was a prank, because the AKC focuses on purebreds and Gander is a labradoodle. ~Lon Hodges

About Operation Fetch

Operation FetchOperation Fetch is a 501C3 nonprofit dedicated to Service Dogs, PTSD advocacy and recovery from trauma any kind.

Under the Operation Fetch banner and with the support of their ever growing community of supporters, Lon and Gander have worked tirelessly to spread awareness about P.T.S.D., Invisible Disabilities and Service Dog Awareness.

They’ve worked with groups of all sizes, as well as universities and Fortune 500 companies across America, such as the Starbucks Corporation where earlier this year they assisted in creating national training standards for employees regarding service dog access.

As important as the educational aspect of their journey is, Hodge is always looking for opportunities to personally conOperation Fetchnect with veterans in need, and to collect stories of service men and women who have lost the battle within and taken their own lives. And the statistics in this regard are heartbreaking with an estimated 22 veterans taking their lives every day.

Most of the time when someone commits suicide we’re afraid to talk about it. We don’t want anyone to think our son or brother or daughter or sister was defective. But that’s exactly why it keeps happening. ~Lon Hodge

Hodge hopes to change the conversation from death and statistics to a celebration of a life cut short as he collects stories for his new book titled Fetch: Travels with Gander.

There is so much more I’d love to share with you about Lon and Gander, but since time is short I’ll close by letting you know about how to connect with this amazing pair.

Please note: This story was originally published on August 21, 2014 and has been updated and republished in light of the growth and expansion plans underway for Operation Fetch … and oh, yeah, I’ve officially joined other volunteers actively supporting Lon and Gander’s work through Operation Fetch. 

Let today be the day you give up who you’ve been for who you can become.
About Marquita Herald

Marquita Herald

Marquita is an author, resilience coach and the chief evangelist at Emotionally Resilient Living. She’s also an unapologetic workaholic who loves red wine, rock n’ roll, road trips (and car dancing!), peanut butter cookies and (especially) a dog named Lucy.

She’s saddened and frustrated by excuses and cruelty and believes authentic compassion is the most powerful force in the world.

To learn more about Marquita and the mission of Emotionally Resilient Living  click here.

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  1. Sushmita

    Thank you! For sharing such a touching story. Dogs are such amazing friends with a bond which is interconnected. Hope you achieve your goal soon.
    Sushmita recently posted…The new word of mouth!My Profile

  2. Frankie Franks says:

    Thank You Marquita…
    As a Long Time Supporter and Friend to Lon and Gander,
    you Rocked this!!
    From a Sister of Ganderdom.

  3. Stel Pontikes says:

    Thx for this great story on Lon and Gander! Well done and well written.

  4. Jeri

    I noticed all of the posts you’ve put on FB lately about this too. Animals can be used in so many ways to help rehabilitate those in need. When I meet someone who has never had pets, I can never figure out why. They bring such joy to us in their own small ways, and it’s even better when they can be trained to help others.
    Jeri recently posted…#Editor: Freelance Editing Contract TemplateMy Profile

  5. Mark

    What a truly inspiring story M!

    And just think, had not those two found each other, sadly by now, Lon might have become just another overlooked and taken for granted statistic!

    But thank goodness, now they get to spread goodwill and offer a real sense of hope, to so many others!

    It’s amazing what’s possible, when we think and act from that perspective!

    This is such a marvelous story on so many levels!Thanks so much for sharing it!
    Mark recently posted…Three Ways Technology Has Actually Taken Your Small Business Hostage!My Profile

  6. Marquita — this story touched my heart. Just this past Sunday, the New York Times had a front-page story about the young vets from the Iraq and Pakistani wars that are committing suicide everyday. It’s become an epidemic. It’s so wrong that the government hasn’t done more and the VA is so incompetent. We owe our veterans so much more. I’ve contributed to the Wounded Warriors project and thanks for the links which I will check out and see if I can do any more. Thanks for writing this post and bringing the topic to more people’s attention.
    Jeannette Paladino recently posted…How Could You Cheat on Us Like You Did, Volkswagen?My Profile

  7. nick catricala

    this story is truly inspiring and moving.. I read other similar stories, but this is probably the one that is having the most success in bring the awareness of the need to support veteran when they have serious health and or emotional challenges.

    Thanks so much for sharing and I am more than happy to share as much as I can so others have the opportunity to know about it.

    Thanks again… very kind and loving on your part.
    nick catricala recently posted…What you do when time seem to be against you?My Profile

  8. Paula Poole says:

    Thank you for your article on Gander and Lon. I have been following their work combined with their partner and friend, Mark for a while now. I enjoyed your way of telling their story. It is quite amazing and how they instill calm and relaxation into all they do. They are so caring for others, Gander continues to recognize somehow when there is pain or suffering. It feels to some of us that he is part angel. But they are both heroes to me as I see the difference they make each day in others lives. Thanks again for the super job you did. I really enjoyed it.

  9. Sharon Stacy says:

    I have followed Lon and Gander for a while now. I love their post and the way they help so many people. They are the first thing i check on FB when I get home from work. Your story about them was awesome,and it shows the closeness of these 2 and all their friends.Fight On Gander and Lon,you do make a difference.

  10. Hi Marty. What a touching story, and what a face! Who couldn’t love a dog that looks like that.

    As you probably know, I’m a huge supporter of our military. I lived, been friends with, and gone to church with military people all of my life. I’m very happy to know about this program.

    Dogs are so amazing. I have a friend who has diabetes, and she has a lab who won’t let her sugar go out of balance. When it’s running too high, the dog is right there and won’t leave my friend alone until she takes her insulin.

    Thanks so much for sharing this story.

    All the best,
    Leslie Denning recently posted…Creating Your Own ProductMy Profile

  11. Ann Dowdy says:

    I don’t know what to say except Lon and Gander, the magnet I felt to them and their souls….it’s just there.
    God bless us all

  12. pat Gifford says:

    Thankyou for this Lon/Gander article. It was wonderful! I love them both. As an abused child I identify with the stress and the caring a dog can provide. God bless!

  13. Great story, Marquita.
    Dogs (animals) are such wonderful companions and can become incredible servicers. Dogs can be trained to do amazing things, like detect when someone’s heart pacer is malfunctioning.
    Just as pets, though, they so vastly improve the quality of life and physical well being of their owners. And that even includes the dogs that don’t train well and may even have behavioural issues.
    Thanks for the fascinating peek into the lives of Lon and Gander.
    David Merrill 101 recently posted…Building Relationships | First Niagara Bank ReviewMy Profile

  14. This is a truly inspiring story. I have many friends who suffer from PTSD. I am so thankful for organizations that reaches out to the well being of Soldiers. I cannot put into words how touching this story is to me. Thank you for sharing.
    Nathaniel Kidd recently posted…Save Money on Your Grocery Bill Without CouponsMy Profile

  15. What a beautiful story, Marty! I’m so glad for Lon and many more like him who have found such a friend.

    Dogs truly are a man’s best friend. Such loyalty and unconditional love. Our own Shadow came to us four years ago this fall, when our elderly neighbour had to leave his farm and animals behind. Shadow is mostly blue heeler, but she is so gentle and friendly to everyone. She was at least 7 when she came to us, and has evidently suffered abuse in her younger days, but she is wonderful around children and adults alike. We gave her a home, thinking we were doing her a favour. She has given back to us far more!
    Willena Flewelling recently posted…A Helping HandMy Profile

  16. Your story brought back all my feelings and memories for our dog Kippy. We raised her from puppy to 14 years old, a full grown Collie who I knew was more than Lassie. She had a different relationship with each one in the family and knew who needed what and when. She held s together for many years. Thanks for this beautiful story of what is possible. Pinning.
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  17. Suzie Cheel

    What a wonderful story Marty, what a wonderful project. Dogs are such wonderful friends and healers and Gander looks and sounds amazing.
    Thanks for sharing and for you passion xx
    Suzie Cheel recently posted…2I Healthy Reasons To Eat Chia Seeds DailyMy Profile

    • martyherald says:

      Glad you enjoyed the article Suzie. Yes Gander is such a sweet dog I imagine it can be a challenge at times for people to remember he’s actually a working dog. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

  18. Jacqueline Waters says:

    Aww, he is such a good dog. There is none more loyal than those little furry friends that come through our life. I wasn’t much for pets at all until my Boxer named BUZZ forced his way into my heart. I will never forget him and he was a super good boy. I don’t think he would have had the patience to learn the training required to be a service dog per say but he was an awesome companion dog and a member of the family.
    Jacqueline Waters recently posted…Understanding Market SophisticationMy Profile

    • martyherald says:

      Glad you enjoyed the article Jacqueline. I hear you, my dog Lucy is the love of my life and I’d be a millionaire if I had a dollar for every time she made me smile or laugh, but I just can’t her feisty personality in a “working” situation. Still there are places for all animals in our hearts. Thanks for taking the time to share and contribute to the conversation.

  19. Alan Jenkin

    That should have been “bond” – not “nod” – grrrrr!
    Alan Jenkin recently posted…Robin Williams and YouMy Profile

  20. Alan Jenkin

    What a moving story, Marquita – thank you so much for sharing it. Lon’s experience in going from a haunted recluse to a poet, author and traveler speaks volumes of the healing power of animals.

    My stepson, Trent Willmon, has done a lot of charity work for a similar organization – Horses for Healing – so he has seen some of the transformations that animals can bring to traumatized individuals. The nod that forms between a pet and a loving owner is like no other.

    Alan Jenkin recently posted…Robin Williams and YouMy Profile

    • martyherald says:

      Welcome back Alan. I’ve read some wonderful stories about programs working with horses as well and they are so inspiring. Thanks for sharing and contributing to the conversation. 🙂

  21. Sebastian Aiden Daniels

    This is a beautiful story. I am so glad that Lon found Gander and that it helped him in so many ways. It is truly inspiring. I am going to share this story on Pinterest for you : D.
    Sebastian Aiden Daniels recently posted…Why You Need to Know What it is Like to Have SchizophreniaMy Profile

  22. Dave Cenker

    This sounds like such a wonderful and symbiotic relationship. Lon saved Gander, and Gander continues to save Lon. Beautiful. I know that some people are “dog” people and other people are “cat” people, and yet others may be “insert pet type here” people. It is amazing how the relationship with our pets is able to help us cope with pain, suffering, anxiety, or stress in our lives. I have seen it time and time again in my own life, and very recently as well!

    This is a wonderful story and a perfect example of how all living things on this earth are interconnected. Serving as a coach for my son’s Lego robotics team last year, they were asked to perform research that helps address a problem dealing with the theme (natural disasters). The team chose to address the separation of pets from their owners during a hurricane evacuation.

    The team consisting of boys aged nine to twelve came to the realization through their research that for some people, their pets are their family. They have no one else. It touched my heart to know that this message was passed along to not only other adults, but other youth who will be able to carry this worthy cause and recognition into the future.

    Thank you Marty for sharing awareness of this important subject and best wishes to meet your goal in supporting a veteran-pet pairing 🙂
    Dave Cenker recently posted…SunriseMy Profile

    • martyherald says:

      Thanks Dave, I’m glad you enjoyed the article. There are so many touching and inspiring stories about the connection between people and animals it’s hard not to view them with some level of reverence. I suppose that’s just one reason why it’s so hard to understand how some people can be cruel to them – but then look at how some people treat their own children? Always appreciate your thoughtful insights Dave. 🙂

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