Homeless veterans started lining up before dawn. In the misty morning light, they stood outside the Coliseum at the Arizona State Fairgrounds clutching backpacks, sleeping bags and abandoned shopping carts. As the sun rose the silhouettes of people and animals became clearer.
One man held a rope that was tied around the neck of a greying pit bull. A middle-aged woman was curled around a terrier shivering in her lap. A young man lay on the ground, spooned up against his Labrador mix to keep them both warm.
The veterans varied in age and life experience, but they had this in common: They loved their pets and would sacrifice anything for them.
I experienced my first StandDown in 2007. My life has never been the same.
“Stand-down” is a military term that refers to a brief period of time when soldiers cease fire in an active combat zone to rest and regain strength before returning to battle. Every day as many as 50,000 homeless veterans are battling life on our nation’s streets.
The Arizona StandDown provides three days of respite and shelter for homeless veterans each year with the goal of helping them meet their long-term needs and enter housing and treatment programs designed to get them reintegrated into the community. Arizona StandDown 2015 served a record 1,693 veterans in a single weekend.
Coordinated by the Arizona Coalition to End Homelessness, the StandDown provides services such as Veterans Affairs benefits assistance, medical and mental health services, housing assistance, court services, substance abuse counselors and referrals, employment services, social security assistance, help with ID cards and drivers licenses, legal aid, tax services, sleeping areas, meals, clothing, haircuts, showers—and veterinary care.
When I joined the effort in 2007, the veterinarian who had agreed to donate his time failed to show up for the event. According to the event coordinator, this had been the case from year to year.
I was given a folding table and a small area to work from. I ran to my car and gathered my stethoscope, thermometer and pen—as a veterinary technician, I always keep these items with me—and set up shop.
I’ll never forget the first man I spoke with. He was very large and would have been imposing save for the wide grin on his face. He had been living in a tiny Geo Metro car with his white German shepherd for several years. The man told me all about his dog: his likes and dislikes, how he preferred to be petted—everything. He talked about how he saved every penny people gave him so he could buy his dog the arthritis medications that kept him limber. As his eyes danced and his hands wove the tale, something occurred to me.
“When is the last time you ate a meal?” I asked the man.
He looked up, thought for a moment and replied, “I don’t remember."
That. That was the moment. I brought him to the dining area where he ate a warm, hearty dinner. Then we got to work on his dog. I didn’t have anything to offer other than a physical exam and some advice. But a fire had ignited inside me and I knew that this was where I was needed. I promised those veterans I would be there the next year.
Because I am not a veterinarian, I was unable to requisition drugs and medications. Luckily, Connie Anderson, DVM, had heard of the StandDown and called us to see if there was some way she could help. The executive committee paired us up and we launched Vets for Vets’ Pets.
Each year we gather more supplies, more medications and more volunteers. And the number of pets we see is growing exponentially. That first year I saw 10 animals. The second year brought in 44. In 2011, we saw 167 pets. And this last year, we served 570 dogs and cats in just two days.
I never really thought about what I was doing—I just did it. And then one day in March, I got a call from a friend and colleague who volunteers with me at the StandDown. She told me she’d nominated me for the American Hero Veterinary Technician Award through the American Humane Association (AHA). I was flattered and thanked her profusely. And I kind of thought that was it.
Until I got a call in May telling me that 12 industry and celebrity judges had selected me as one of five finalists. Now they had my attention. I couldn’t believe it! They liked me! They really, really liked me! At 5 p.m. on July 31, Mari Harner from American Humane called to tell me I had won by public vote. I tried to remain professional, but mostly I squealed like a little girl.
The details came through a series of conference calls and a flurry of emails: five days and four nights at the Beverly Hilton, a private movie screening with dinner and a panel discussion as a guest of philanthropist and AHA supporter Lois Pope, a cocktail party at the Stardust Penthouse on the roof of the Beverly Hilton, a filming of Hallmark Channel’s “Home & Family,” a star-studded awards gala with a red carpet appearance. It was all so surreal. I felt like someone had plucked me out of my everyday life and put me right into a fairy tale.
I was allowed to bring a guest with me on my adventure, so I invited my mom, Sharron Gibson, who is my rock and my best friend. We flew from Phoenix to Los Angeles on Wednesday, Sept. 16. When we got to baggage claim, there was a man in a suit holding a sign with my name on it—just like in the movies! He drove us to the Beverly Hilton, where folks from American Humane helped get us settled and ready for our first big event.
We had dinner on a hotel’s rooftop terrace with a string ensemble playing in the background. Waiters dressed all in black offered delicate hors d’oeuvres. The tables were laid with gleaming plates and crisp linens. We watched the sun set over the Hollywood hills. Friday morning, AHA held a meet-and-greet breakfast where Annette and I had the opportunity to meet all the Hero Dogs and their handlers. After we had breakfast, we were driven to the Universal Lot for a filming of “Home & Family” on which the Hero Dogs were featured. We met Paula Deen (celebrity chef), Louis Van Amstel (ballroom dancer from TV’s “Dancing with the Stars”) and other celebrities.
Sleep was hard to come by due to all the excitement, but I managed to get a few hours before I had to be up. Annette Sysel, DVM, winner of the American Hero Veterinarian Award, and I were driven to VCA West LA Animal Hospital where we each filmed a tribute video that would be shown at the awards gala and, later, posted on the AHA Hero Vet Awards website.
Friday morning, AHA held a meet-and-greet breakfast where Annette and I had the opportunity to meet all the Hero Dogs and their handlers. After we had breakfast, we were driven to the Universal Lot for a filming of “Home & Family” on which the Hero Dogs were featured. We met Paula Deen (celebrity chef), Louis Van Amstel (ballroom dancer from TV’s “Dancing with the Stars”) and other celebrities.
Saturday brought the awards gala. I rushed around getting my nails painted and my hair done. Just before I was due for a photo shoot outside the ballroom, I slipped on my evening gown and jewelry. It was quite a change from wearing scrubs! I stared into the mirror for a minute, reflecting on my journey and everything that had brought me to that moment. Shaking myself out of my reverie, I hurried downstairs where the red carpet had been laid out and media photographers were setting up their equipment. A cocktail hour and silent auction preceded the big event. Celebrities including Cameron Mathison, Alison Sweeney, Lacey Chabert, Pauley Perrette, Lea Thompson, Danica McKellar, Bindi Irwin, Alicia Witt, John Ondrasik and Marty Becker, DVM, mingled with the program’s guests.
It was my turn to walk the red carpet. A production assistant held up a sign with my name on it. The photographers each took a shot of it before turning their lenses to me. I posed and turned, trying to emulate what I’d seen the celebrities before me doing. At the end of the red carpet, television shows and media bloggers were holding interviews. Laura T. Coffey and Lori Fusaro, creators of the book My Old Dog: Rescued Pets with Remarkable Second Acts, asked me to stop for photographs. In the lounge area, the Hero Dogs, the Hero Vet and I each had a tall banner on display where more photographers took our pictures.
Finally, it was time for the gala. The Hero Dog Awards took place in the International Ballroom at the Beverly Hilton; this is the same room where the Golden Globes are held. The room was filled with colored lights, the Hero Dog logo projected on the walls, beautifully laid tables, pastel floral arrangements and people in sparkling evening wear. I found my table and was seated among board members for VCA and the American Humane Association.
After a luxurious three-course dinner, pledges were taken to raise money to send care packages to military working dogs and their handlers overseas. The goal was $20,000; more than $75,000 was raised. Then the lights went down and celebrity presenters welcomed the Hero Dogs and their handlers on stage to receive their awards.
I received the last award of the evening. Shortly before I was to be announced, a production assistant pulled me into the green room where my hair and makeup was touched up. Marty Becker, Jade Roper and Tanner Tolbert from TV’s “Bachelor in Paradise,” and Lois Pope were among those in the room. Just before my segment, I sat quietly in a chair, mulling over what I wanted to say.
Too soon, I was called up. I stood just offstage while my tribute video was played. I started to watch it on the monitor next to me, but felt my eyes welling up from the emotional scenes and looked away. Danica McKellar announced, “Please welcome our Hero Veterinary Technician of the year, Julie Carlson.”
I strode onto the stage, trying to project more confidence than I felt, while also attempting to walk in my high heels (a rarity for me). I accepted the heavy crystal Tiffany & Co. statue from McKellar and received hugs, kisses and handshakes from her, Dr. Becker, and J. Michael McFarland, DVM, DABVP, of Zoetis.
I turned toward the crowd, looking at the 700 faces giving me a standing ovation, and began: “Wow, what an honor! You know, every day there are about 50,000 United States veterans living on the very streets they fought to defend. And for many of those veterans, their dog is the only thing they have left. So I want to thank American Humane Association and Zoetis for shining a light on this vulnerable population and for supporting our efforts to keep these pets healthy. I also would like to thank my friends at Animal House Veterinary Clinic and Pima Medical Institute and everybody who voted for me and supported me throughout this whole process. Thank you.”
After the gala, the other winners and I were bouncing off the walls with excitement. Even with the late hour, there was no way we were going to bed anytime soon. We gathered by the Beverly Hilton pool, and I found my tablemates there, who cheered as I walked in. We laughed, cried and relived the gala until just before dawn. No one wanted it to end. Although we had to fly home the next day, we are all gathering again soon, this time in Washington, D.C. The American Humane Association has invited us to a congressional briefing on America’s Hero Dogs on Oct. 21, where we will discuss the power of the human-animal bond.
The other winners and I have all become friends and speak almost daily. We are supporting each other’s causes and spreading the word about our organizations. Although we are scattered across the country, this event has bonded us forever. And even though I’m back to work, every once in a while I pull my evening gown out of my closet and remember how it felt to be famous, if even just for 15 minutes.