Picking his dog’s name seemed like an easy decision.
Matt Burgess looked at the large paws on the 8-week-old pup chewing his shoe laces. He figured the Rottweiler mix would grow into a massive guard dog.
So he called him Brinks, after the armored trucks that transport money and valuables.
Burgess was right about Brinks providing protection; it’s just not the type he expected.
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“In a more important way, he’s protected my health,” the 42-year-old Iraq War veteran said. “He’s protected my life ... from internal dangers.”
Burgess now wants to help other disabled veterans find that same security. He recently created the nonprofit Freedom Fidos, which trains service dogs for veterans with disabilities — at no charge.
“I get what veterans have been through,” said Burgess, who moved to Surfside Beach in March. “ I feel like I really understand canine psychology. I love veterans ... and I love dogs. So it was just the perfect fit for me.”
Most mornings, Burgess rises before 5 a.m. to train the dogs. He often works with them at The Market Common’s parks or on the vacant green space of golf courses that have been shut down.
He’s already trained five dogs and he’s currently working with seven others. His waiting list holds 13 names.
Two trainers, both with military backgrounds, assist Burgess in educating the dogs, which are taught to address each client’s specific needs. That means spending hours of daily time with each animal.
“Dog training is a lifestyle,” Burgess said, “particularly when you’re doing it for service dogs.”
Freedom Fidos doesn’t charge disabled children or disabled veterans for services. There is a fee for others seeking the nonprofit’s assistance. To cover the costs, which can be as much as $4,000 per animal, the group holds fundraisers and accepts donations.
Although other organizations, including Canine Angels in North Myrtle Beach, provide similar services, there’s always a need for more groups to help veterans, said Wendell Allen, who runs the Horry County Veterans Affairs Department.
“Absolutely,” he said. “It’s a great need.”
The county is home to some 26,000 veterans, including 8,864 that Allen’s office helped last year. Many of the younger warriors who have returned from Iraq and Afghanistan are suffering from Posttraumatic Stress Disorder or traumatic brain injuries.
Burgess knows those struggles well.
The first of his two stints in the military took him to Bosnia and Macedonia in the mid-1990s. While in Bosnia, he was injured in three explosions. Always a gritty Army guy, Burgess refused to be sidelined by his health. He got out of the military in 1997 but reentered the service after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
“My life had really changed, but at the time I was the typical tough soldier,” he said. “Didn’t want to admit anything medical. For one thing, I wanted to stay in the military. And I didn’t want anyone to know.”
His second time back lasted just two months. He was part of the military police manning a Humvee when a camel in the area stepped on a land mine. The blast blew him out of the vehicle and onto concrete, knocking him unconscious.
When his superiors wanted to send him back, Burgess protested. But when he struggled to stand up, battled severe headaches and could no longer keep food down, he was transported back to the U.S. In addition to the brain injuries from the explosions, doctors told him he’d also had a terrible reaction to an anthrax vaccine.
He permanently retired from the military in 2007.
Learning the ropes
Burgess never trained dogs in the military. His family didn’t even have them when he was growing up.
His interest in man’s best friends developed when he brought Brinks home several years ago from an Athens, Ga., animal shelter.
At the time, Burgess was studying social work at the University of Georgia. When he adopted Brinks, he struggled with the high-energy pup, who chewed through six pairs of shoes and numerous socks. Brinks also liked to run through the house, disrupting his owner’s studying.
So Burgess began ordering dog training manuals and DVDs. His initial goal was to teach Brinks basic obedience cues. But one day as he was building a fence, a gust of wind slapped a board against his head.
The blow knocked Burgess unconscious. Although Brinks had never tried to escape, the dog sensed something was wrong and jumped over the five-foot privacy fence. He alerted Burgess’s neighbors, who came to help him.
That was the moment Burgess knew he needed a service dog.
After asking around, he found a Grand Strand organization that would help train Brinks.
Through that experience, and his research on other similar programs, Burgess knew what he wanted to do: train service dogs for veterans in a humane way and do so without charging them.
“Myrtle Beach is just a great place for anything to do with dogs,” he said. “I’ve never had more fulfillment than I do now doing this.”
Unlike some dog trainers, Burgess eschews choke, pinch and shock collars. The process may take longer, he said, but he’s fine with that.
“For me, with things I did in the military, and I think this is true for other veterans too, a lot of us, we don’t want to hurt anybody or anything anymore,” he said. “We’re very sensitive to how we treat our dogs.”
He adopts rescue dogs to train. If the process doesn’t work out, the animal never goes back to a shelter. Sometimes Burgess trains the dog to be a therapy animal, the kind that visits people in nursing homes or hospice centers.
Worst case scenario: The dog becomes a friend’s pet.
She can sense it
The foundation of Burgess’s program is basic obedience training. However, he adjusts his approach based on the needs of an animal’s owner.
Mace Johnson, a local 31-year-old Marine Corps veteran, relies on his dog Ginger for both mental and physical support.
Johnson’s spine was nearly severed during his military service, and Ginger often braces herself so he can use her to stand. The 5-year-old lab/hound mix also comforts her owner during his bouts with depression, anxiety and the effects of Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
“She can sense it,” he said. “She pretty much just comes up to me and lets me know that everything’s OK. … If not for her, we might not have a conversation.”
Johnson met Burgess at an American Legion fundraiser. He said he was struck by his fellow veteran’s commitment to providing a service dog without a bill.
“He thinks that you’ve already paid your price,” he said.
Susan Sejda first heard the name Freedom Fidos when she saw one of Burgess’s business cards at a veterans thrift store in Surfside Beach.
“The name jumped out at me,” said Sejda, a longtime Rolling Thunder member who is married to a disabled Vietnam War veteran. “I said, ‘I’ve got to find out more about this organization.’”
After getting to know Burgess, she started volunteering with Freedom Fidos and she’s introduced him to many of the local veterans groups.
“These service dogs give them back their freedom,” she said. “It changes their lives in so many ways.”
That’s Burgess’s goal. He wants Freedom Fidos to give other veterans the confidence he found with Brinks. Although the dog never developed into the huge guard beast Burgess envisioned — too much shepherd, too little Rottweiler — he said the presence of his four-legged companion assures him. And as he’s seen with the dogs he’s trained so far, other veterans are finding that strength, too.
“You still see the warrior spirit in them,” Burgess said. “It gives them their quality of life back that a lot of them had lost.”