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When Justin Lansford returned from Afghanistan in the spring of 2012, the last thing on his mind was getting a dog.
He’d just been blown up and crushed by a vehicle while serving as a paratrooper in the 82nd Airborne Division.
The blast cost him his left leg, while his right one had to be reattached. He also suffered a broken back, a ruptured spleen, collapsed lungs and various other injuries.
“I was immobile for four months,” Lansford told TODAY.com.
But his life changed while he was rehabilitating at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland, when he met his soon to-be best friend, a dog named Gabe.
Lansford's wife (then-girlfriend) Carol Balmes facilitated the meeting through Warrior Canine Connection, a program that pairs therapy dogs with wounded soldiers.
Balmes, who was interning for the agency, watched as her burly boyfriend immediately fell in love with the 2-year-old Golden Retriever, even getting the pup to roll around on the ground with him.
“When Gabe came in the room, he acted like he knew me my entire life,” said Lansford, 26. “We’ve been attached at the hip ever since.”
Lansford is now studying Arabic and International Studies with a focus on the Middle East at the University of South Florida. Gabe goes to class with him every day.
The pair recently made headlines when Lansford made Gabe best man at his wedding.
“The relationship between Gabe and Justin is hard to put into words,” Rick Yount, Warrior Canine Connection’s executive director, told TODAY.com. “It's calming just looking at them together.”
Justin and Gabe’s friendship isn’t the first human-canine bond the Brookeville, Maryland, organization has fostered.
The not-for-profit currently has 40 dogs in training, all of them expected to one day become a wounded soldier’s best pal.
WCC has its own breeding program for Golden and Labrador Retrievers, and when the pups are around 12 weeks old, they are placed with foster parents specially trained to get the animals socialized and confident.
Judy Mikola, a speech pathologist at Walter Reed and the National Intrepid Center of Excellence, was Gabe’s “puppy parent” before handing him over to Lansford.
“He went to work with me every day … where he trained five days a week with numerous wounded warriors that were receiving treatment for [brain injuries] and PTSD at the medical facility,” Mikola said.
Gabe learned dozens of manual commands, like how to open doors, retrieve things around the house, help put on a prosthetic limb and even provide physical balance if Justin is unsteady.
But he’s also equipped with remarkable emotional intelligence; if Justin is feeling stressed out or nervous, Gabe will lend a helping paw.
“When I rub my hands together or put them over my face, Gabe will nudge them apart,” Lansford said. “He basically reminds me that he’s there, and to chill out.”
“There is a loving smiling face for me that is there all the time,” he said. “It’s impossible to be frustrated when I look at that face.”