Chance of a Lifetime

A service dog named Chance is a godsend for local combat veteran Sgt. Ingrid Hernandez

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Vero Beach resident Ingrid Hernandez counts her service dog, Chance, as a blessing in her life. Photography by Steven Martine
Vero Beach resident Ingrid Hernandez counts her service dog, Chance, as a blessing in her life. Photography by Steven Martine

A small Iraqi child with a bloody foot hopped toward Sgt. Ingrid Hernandez, calling to her, the only female soldier in the convoy. She and her unit were preparing to leave a school in a village deep in the Sunni Triangle south of Tikrit. The soldiers hoisted the boy onto the hood of their Humvee, ready to administer first aid. 

Then they realized the blood was fake. In the next milli-second an RPG (rocket-propelled grenade) exploded around them.  

Photo courtesy of Sgt. Ingrid Hernandez
Photo courtesy of Sgt. Ingrid Hernandez

It was not a direct hit, but shrapnel landed everywhere. The boy—a decoy—ran off. Amid the heavy smoke, with no place to take cover, the troops returned fire. As soon as they could, they jumped into their vehicle and, with Hernandez at the wheel, sped away. 

Chance
Chance

For her actions that day in 2004, Hernandez earned the Bronze Star for “exceptionally meritorious service” and for demonstrating “leadership and unwavering commitment to mission, and technical expertise in a hostile situation,” along with the Combat Action Badge for performing according to the rules of engagement while under attack.

However, she came away from that incident with more than well-deserved decorations; she was also left with PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder). Actually, she says, the stress of going out in a convoy to provide humanitarian aid five to six days a week for almost 18 months—and never knowing if she would return—also contributed to her condition.  

Hernandez drove the Iraqi roads under overpasses from which grenades were often launched at her vehicle. It’s no wonder that when she returned to her native Boston, she collected numerous traffic tickets for speeding and zigzagging under the overpasses on Storrow Drive, the city’s major crosstown parkway.

Ingrid and Victor Hernandez and their children, Isabella, Sebastian, and Marcelo, enjoy down time in the backyard when Chance isn’t needed in his capacity as a service dog
Ingrid and Victor Hernandez and their children, Isabella, Sebastian, and Marcelo, enjoy down time in the backyard when Chance isn’t needed in his capacity as a service dog.

In the years since, Hernandez, who now lives in Vero Beach with her husband and three children, has learned coping skills and has helped fellow veterans and others suffering from PTSD. A member of Next Generation Veterans and secretary of the Veterans Council of Indian River County, she heads a PTSD support group for veterans and female first responders.  

Yet she calls her service dog, Chance, her best chance at successfully treating the condition that has plagued her since the Iraq war.

Isabella, Sebastian, and Marcelo enjoy down time in the backyard when Chance isn’t needed in his capacity as a service dog
Isabella, Sebastian, and Marcelo enjoy down time in the backyard when Chance isn’t needed in his capacity as a service dog.

Chance is a 2-year-old golden Lab who stays close to her, senses when she feels anxious, and, by nudging or leaning against her, makes her feel calm and safe. And Hernandez can finally sleep through the night without
constantly checking to make sure the house is secure and her family is not in danger.

Chance came to Hernandez through Dogs for Life, the Vero Beach nonprofit that has trained and provided service dogs to veterans, at no charge, since 2015. Dogs for Life founder and CEO Shelly Ferger explains that it is one of five organizations in Florida accredited by Assistance Dogs International to certify service dogs. As a member of ADI, Dogs for Life obtains two to three dogs a year from a breeding co-op for service dog bloodlines.

Ingrid and Isabella play with Chance
Ingrid and Isabella play with Chance.

“We provide foster care and train the puppies until they are about a year old and then offer the dogs to vets or other individuals with PTSD or hearing or mobility disabilities,” she says. “After we place the service dog, we train the dog and owner together for another six months to a year on specific tasks.” The cost to Dogs for Life is approximately $35,000 for the lifespan of the service dog. This includes training, certifications, veterinary care, and insurance. 

In addition, Dogs for Life offers an off-leash dog park on its 4½-acre location at 1230 16th Ave., which includes a 2,400-square-foot service dog training center. Donations, grants, and fundraisers support the organization. Patriots for Puppies, a military-themed event, is its major fundraiser. This year, it was held February 3 at Pointe West.

Hernandez still participates in group training with Chance at the 2,400-square-foot service dog training center at Dogs for Life
Hernandez still participates in group training with Chance at the 2,400-square-foot service dog training center at Dogs for Life.

Chance and Ingrid were matched in January 2023. “Because of his personality, he is the perfect dog for her,” Ferger says. “And when I learned of her sleep issue, I told her she would never spend another night in fear that someone was going to break into her house, because his instinct is to bark—and loudly—at a strange sound.” Hernandez agrees: “Now I sleep like a baby.”

Dogs for Life founder and CEO Shelly Ferger introduces Ranger, a service puppy in training
Dogs for Life founder and CEO Shelly Ferger introduces Ranger, a service puppy in training.

She adds, “I feel protected when he is with me. When I take him out in public and people get too close, he stays right there next to me.” He is trained to watch for people coming up behind her, which, according to Ferger, is often a concern for PTSD sufferers.  

Chance is in tune with his owner’s moods and knows when she is in a stressful situation. “He presses against me, like a hug, or nudges me. And if I come home after a bad day, he will lie on the couch with me, and he’s like having a weighted blanket. It’s the best feeling.”

A service dog is trained to focus on its owner and is not meant to be a pet. Hernandez and her family have worked this out. “The children have been amazing,” she says of her 13-, 12-, and 11-year-olds. “They know Chance is Mom’s dog. When I’m home, Chance will stay with me if I need him. But when I release him, he knows he can go and play with the children.”

Ranger and Austin are two of three puppies that Dogs for Life has currently in foster care with volunteers, training to be service dogs for veterans
Ranger and Austin are two of three puppies that Dogs for Life has currently in foster care with volunteers, training to be service dogs for veterans.

This decorated veteran is grateful for all the people along the way who brought Chance into her life. “It takes a village to get a service dog to a vet: the breeders, the people who foster the puppy, and then train him alone, and train the dog and the owner together. So much time and love go into every step.”

Hernandez encouraged veterans with PTSD to apply to Dogs for Life for a service dog. “I never knew how much I needed him until I got him,” she says. “There are tools to deal with PTSD, and I have them, but Chance is a blessing.” 

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