Companion dog another ‘life-changer’ for disabled veteran

Beth Wiggins (second from left) speaks after officially assuming ownership of her new companion-service dog Berlin (in foreground). From left are Johann Hubert, Beth’s son Eli, and Jeff Anderson.

Beth Wiggins recognizes the 2015 incident that landed her in a Mobile hospital, cost her both her legs and forced her to spend lengthy periods in two different rehabilitation facilities as a life-changing event.

Last Saturday, May 13, she experienced another life-changing event.

Wiggins, a Canoe resident who served two tours of duty before receiving an honorable discharge from the Marines as a corporal in 1999, was the recipient of a service-companion dog, a Belgian Malanois named Berlin.

The canine companion became a member of her family through the courtesy of a non-profit organization that provides such animals to honorably discharged military veterans who are amputees or who suffer from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder or Traumatic Brain injury.

Johann Hubert, Berlin’s trainer, said the Malanois was “going to be more than a companion, it’s going to change her life.”

“This means a lot to me,” Wiggins said from the chancel of Unity Baptist Church during a ceremony in which she formally took ownership of the dog. “A lot has happened to me. As ya’ll know, my life changed. But the good Lord has been by my side.”

Standing steadily on her prosthetic legs, she recounted the chance meeting that led to Saturday’s ceremony. She was in a rehabilitation center in Dallas, Texas, learning to use the artificial limbs, when Jeff Anderson, chief executive officer of California-based Rebuilding Warriors, happened to stop by the facility.

“I spent nine weeks in Texas, learning to walk, where I met Mr. Jeff and Johann,” she said. “They brought the dog up and came up to the gym, where I got to meet her. She is an amazing dog.”

Anderson, a U.S. Army veteran and former policeman who was shot in the line of duty, told a crowd of about 55 Unity Baptist members and guests that he founded the non-profit four years ago. He said he had no idea he would be providing a dog for the local woman when he and Berlin arrived at the Texas rehab center. By the time he left, he had no doubt he would be doing so.

“It took a little divine intervention,” he said. “I went to the facility where she was, and I was just going to give my spiel and walk out. But I saw Beth working out and I watched her work out for an hour and a half. She was in a puddle of sweat, but she still had a smile on her face. I thought, ‘who is this machine?’ I walked up, asked her if she was looking for a dog. She said she was, and I asked her ‘how about this one?’ She said OK, we cut a deal right there, and the rest is history.”

(Anderson traveled to Atmore from his California home; Hubert and his assistant, Kim Kelley, journeyed here from Coppell, Texas, and Kristen Hager, the organization’s media director, made the trip from Houston.)

The optimistic former servicewoman, an avid softball player throughout her life, recalled that one of her earliest disappointments came when she realized she would most likely never play the game again at a competitive level.

“Softball was always one of my greatest joys,” said Wiggins, who was named to the All Marine Softball Team during her service. “While I was out in Texas, I went to my first game (since the accident). The emotions were unreal, seeing people play and slide, like I used to. Later, I had someone throw me a ball; I didn’t have a glove, and we were pretty close, but I realized that I could still play the field. Now Eli (her 7-year-old son) and I get outside and play Wiffle Ball. I never dreamed it would happen again, but it’s happening.”

Wiggins said Berlin actually represented her third life-changing event in less than two years. The first, of course, occurred on September 1, 2015, when a speeding vehicle slammed into her motorcycle from behind as she was headed to her job as a security officer at Airbus in Mobile, then drove across both her legs when she landed half-on, half-off Interstate 65.

The second mental metamorphosis, she explained, came in the form of her stay at the Dallas rehab facility and reinforced her admiration for the Lone Star State.

“The nine weeks in Texas was life-changing,” she explained. “When I started, I was on crutches, all bent over. Now I can actually walk without any assistance – no crutches, no cane. Texas opened some doors, gave me ‘me’ back. This (the new dog) is another life-changer that happened in Texas.”

The crowd that attended the ceremony included Lorell and Carol Wiggins of Molino, her parents.

“Oh, yeah,” Lorell Wiggins said when asked if the couple was proud of their daughter. “She has worked hard. I tell you what, without her faith and her love of people in the neighborhood and across the country …” He paused, looked off in the distance and concluded, “It’s just been a blessing.”

UBC Pastor Joshua Long, during his blessing of the feast prepared by church members, thanked God that “in the middle of tragedy and brokenness, you rebuild us.” He added that “because of tragedy, Beth is never the same; because of love, she’s never the same, either.”

He also pointed out that Saturday’s ceremony was also a bit of a life-changer for the church.

“This will be the first canine member of our congregation,” he said of the companion dog.

Note: To find out more about Rebuilding Warriors, or to make a tax-deductible donation, visit the organization’s website or its Facebook page.