Bob Andrzejczak is often seen around town accompanied by his yellow Labrador, Maddie. She sticks by his side, greets new people and even makes trips to the office when Andrzejczak works in Cape May Court House as a Democratic assemblyman.
But Maddie means more to Andrzejczak than a normal pet might. Not only has she been his companion for the past couple of years, but the 6-year-old dog helped the Cape May native during some the toughest challenges he faced living as an amputee.
Maddie is one of the many service dogs in the country that help wounded warriors with daily tasks. Through national organizations such as the Wounded Warrior Project, veterans who suffer injuries on the battlefield learn to rebuild their lives with the help of canines.
"In the very beginning in Washington, D.C., I used her for a lot more as far as losing a leg and having a prosthetic," Andrzejczak, 28, of Middle Township, said. "In the beginning, my balance wasn't good. If I fell, she would be able to come over and position herself so I could use her to push myself back up and get back up again."
Andrzejczak and Maddie are featured in a new book that looks at the relationships between wounded veterans and their service dogs.
Living as an amputee and needing the assistance of a service dog became part of Andrzejczak's life through the circumstances of war. Andrzejczak completed his first tour of duty in Iraq as an infantryman in 2006, but injured his knee, resulting in surgery. After recovering for one year and convincing others that he was fit for another tour, Andrzejczak returned to Iraq.
In 2010, he was traveling in a convoy when a grenade exploded and hit his vehicle. Andrzejczak was the veteran member of his team, so he looked to take care of his fellow soldiers first.
"I was trying to make sure everyone else was OK," he said. "The smoke cleared, everybody gathered around and pulled me out of the vehicle. I said, no, help others who need it, and they said, you're the only one."
Andrzejczak sustained injuries that resulted in the amputation of his leg and two years of rehabilitation at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Md. It was there that he noticed other soldiers recovering from injuries who had service dogs helping them. After picking the organization he wanted to go through and getting approved for a dog, Andrzejczak was matched with Maddie.
"It was the perfect pair," he said. "Maddie was already trained. I went up to Massachusetts to do training, which was more for me than her, and learned the different things that are required and commands for a service dog."
Tasks involving bending the knees can be difficult for someone with a prosthetic leg. Andrzejczak can give Maddie commands, and she is able to turn off the lights at night, open and close the refrigerator to get certain medications and pick up objects from the floor.
Andrzejczak said Maddie knew about 40 commands when he first got her but has learned more since. They have both gotten comfortable with a daily routine, and Maddie "already knows what to do before I have to tell her," he said. She has gone to work with Andrzejczak since he was sworn into office as an assemblyman in 2013.
The pair is featured in the book, "Unconditional Honor: Wounded Warriors and Their Dogs," by Kathy Scott and Lower Township photographer Clay Myers. The authors traveled around the country collecting stories and photos of veterans who had service dogs in their lives. The book was published in March.
"Being a veteran myself, I never had service dogs, but I had good friends with dogs," Myers said. "The focus of the book is pay it forward." He said Andrzejczak "is a great example of that. Everybody wants to help."
The photographer had previously photographed rescue dogs and worked with the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, getting heavily involved in animal rescue missions to New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
Andrzejczak often talks to other wounded veterans. He said he frequently recommends that vets who need a hand get a service dog. Andrzejczak said there are many ways in which a wounded warrior can benefit from having a dog, especially one that can provide company as well as physical help.
"The value and what you get out of having a service animal is totally worth it," he said. "They make every day easier. At the same time, they provide therapeutic value, and to have a best friend always by your side, it really is comforting."
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