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Pets & Animals

Meet veteran Joe Worley, whose life changed when he met this dog

When military veteran Joe Worley needed help as he learned to walk again after being injured in Iraq, he knew he could always lean on his service dog Benjamin - literally.

"The physical things that Benjamin's done have taken a lot of the pressure off my wife and kids and myself and that's just a part of it,'' Worley told TODAY. "He's such an integral part of my family."

Nathan Congleton / TODAY
U.S. Navy Corpsman Joe Worley and his service dog, Benjamin, have formed a tight bond over 8 years as Benjamin helped Worsley recover from serious injuries suffered in Iraq.

Worley, a U.S. Navy hospital corpsman third class who served as a field medic, lost his left leg and suffered damage to his right leg when he stepped on an IED in Iraq in September 2004. Worley was rushing to assist soldiers in another vehicle that had been hit by an IED when he was injured.

"I assumed that I was gonna die,'' Worley said.

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Worley underwent numerous surgeries for an entire year before an experience with a facility dog named Duce from Walter Reed National Military Medical Center introduced him to the capabilities of service dogs.

"(Duce) was serious and he was loving, and it was just incredible,'' Worley said. "You see things like that in movies all the time, but to actually see that change in an animal where it's doing something incredible like what they had the dog doing - it was climbing under chairs, and it was picking things up off the floor for veterans who would drop things."

Nathan Congleton / TODAY
Benjamin is always right there to help Worley, whether it's helping to balance himself or pick something up off the ground that Worley has dropped while in his wheelchair.

The experience led Worley to apply for a dog with the organization America's VetDogs, which provides trained service dogs to veterans at no cost, thanks to donations.

Worley has since become a volunteer for America's VetDogs after seeing all the positive effects the animals can have on veterans with physical disabilities, post-traumatic stress disorder and more.

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On Monday, TODAY introduced its newest "puppy with a purpose" from America's VetDogs, which will be trained to be a service dog while spending time with the TODAY family.

Samantha Okazaki / TODAY
TODAY's second Puppy With a Purpose. Our 8-week-old black lab will be training with America's VetDogs to be a guide dog for a veteran.

The new dog will have some big pawprints to fill from TODAY's first puppy, Wrangler, who moved on in March to continue his formal guide dog training.

Worley knows all about the anticipation of getting a new service dog. America's VetDogs paired him with Benjamin, a golden retriever, back in 2008.

"I've talked in front of thousands of people, and I wasn't as nervous as I was the first time I met Ben,'' he said. "It was a friendship, and he became so much a part of my my family and support system so quickly."

Benjamin had been trained to help Worley with balance and mobility when he was walking on his prosthetic leg by giving him something to lean on or help lower himself to the ground. He helped make sure Worley didn't accidentally fall on his wife or baby daughter and potentially injure them.

"A lot of the times I'm tipping (over), so a lot of that is taken care of with him because I have him to hold on to,'' Worley said. "

Worley is also always dropping papers or his phone from his lap when he is using his wheelchair. Benjamin is trained to pick them up for him.

Nathan Congleton / TODAY
Now that Benjamin is getting up there in years, Worley has applied for a new service dog, but Benjamin will still live with him as part of the family.

Benjamin has helped Worley mentally as well as physically.

"He knows when you're stressed out puts that cold nose on your elbow,'' he said. "He has relieved a lot of the pressure that I feel in public because people see the big, shiny leg and it's something to stare at because it's different, and he takes a lot of that away from me."

Benjamin is now 10 years old after having been with Worley for almost his entire life. Since Worley is worried that his dog may not be strong enough any more to handle the physical demands and could get hurt, he has applied for another dog.

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"I think it's gonna be harder for me than it will be for him because he's been here for my whole injury just about,'' Worley said.

Benjamin will still live with the Worley family, while his owner looks to continue to spread the word about America's VetDogs.

"What they're doing is is beautiful,'' he said. "Their hearts are in the right place, and they're training dogs that are mitigating disabilities and improving the lives of veterans and first responders."

Worley also wants to honor the memory of the U.S. marines who died during his tour in Iraq by ensuring other veterans get help through the service dogs.

"All the time I think about the marines I lost on Labor Day (in 2004), and so for me that's more of my motivation to try and be a component in making people lives better,'' he said. "I think that's one of the main reasons why I feel so driven to be a part of something like the America's VetDogs."

Follow writer Scott Stump on Twitter.

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