Piper Hill is a veteran who has suffered memory loss following a traumatic injury. Though her memories are fogged, she has not forgotten the dog that stayed by her side. Valentine, a lovable American Bulldog, was the original inspiration for Healing4Heroes, a charitable organization that introduces rescue dogs to veterans and wounded warriors. Piper joins us to talk about the founding of this unique organization and their mission.
00:11 Anna Bell: Hello and welcome to another episode of Main and Mulberry. I’m your host, Anna Bell, and today I’m really excited to have with us Piper Hill, she’s the founder of Healing4Heroes, a non-profit organization right outside of Atlanta, in Peachtree City, Georgia. So Piper, thanks so much for taking the time to be with us today.
00:32 Piper Hill: Sure, thanks for having me. I’m excited.
00:35 AB: We’re so excited to learn all about Healing4Heroes and your dedication to really assisting military service members and our veterans. So Piper, maybe we can kick things off by learning a little about yourself and if you have any military involvement and how you got the idea to start Healing4Heroes.
00:55 PH: Sure, so I’m a veteran and I have a traumatic brain… Or I had a traumatic brain injury, and I don’t… Yeah, I still don’t… I don’t remember three to four years of my life, but what I do remember is the dog that laid by my bed the whole time. I was staring at the ceiling, I couldn’t read, I couldn’t write, I didn’t know my name, I was kind of slobbering on myself and I was supposed to only live about two months…
01:24 AB: Wow.
01:24 PH: Yeah, it was pretty incredible.
01:27 AB: Were you in active duty?
01:30 PH: Yes, I was on active duty. I don’t talk about what happened, but the good thing about God and TBIs is when you get a TBI, a lot of times you don’t remember what happened, so it’s kind of protecting you from whatever did happen, but…
01:44 AB: But you do remember the service dog with you though.
01:49 PH: Yes. And her name was Valentine, and she did… She was with me, get down, sorry I have a dog in here. [chuckle] She was with me… When she died, she was an American bulldog, weighed about 80 pounds, and when she died, she was about 19 and she’d been with me half my life by the time she passed away. But she laid by the bed and I didn’t have enough cognitive sense to put my medicine by the bed, so I taught her to go get the medicine out of the bathroom. And she would bring me everything in that bathroom to make me happy, it was usually medicine, but I do remember one time she brought me the toilet paper. [laughter]
02:36 AB: Aww, bless her. So really everything right? She was totally taking care of you.
02:41 PH: It was mostly medicine, but every now and then she would mess up and she went… She brought me the toilet paper, and I don’t remember this, but one of my neighbors told me one time she brought me the plunger and I said, “What did I do?” And they said, “You squealed and went, ‘No, gross, get that off the bed.'” [laughter] I don’t remember that though.
03:00 AB: It seems like you guys had a really special relationship then.
03:04 PH: We did, we did. And she laid by me, and every time I moaned or groaned, she would stick her big fat jowls in my face and sometimes lick my tears or, you know, just made sure I was alright. And when I was trying to retire, it was at the beginning of both the Iraq and Afghanistan war, and I was seeing… ‘Cause it was the very beginning of the Iraq War, and I was watching all these kids come back from Iraq and Afghanistan, and I was like, “You know, I’ve always fought for the little person,” and I said, “I can’t fight their battles for them, but I can give them a Valentine to go help them fight their battles.”
03:42 AB: Oh I love that. Give them a Valentine just like yours. Aww, that’s wonderful.
03:47 PH: Yeah.
03:49 AB: So kinda tell us how that started, when did you get that real idea to start Healing4Heroes?
03:56 PH: It took me a little while because obviously, I had to get better. So I started practicing while I was at home. I already knew how to train, AKC train, because my godmother showed German point hair…
04:11 AB: Short haired Pointers?
04:13 PH: German Short haired Pointers, Yes. Thank you.
04:17 AB: GSPs.
04:18 PH: Yes, when I was little. And she gave me and my sister the hard job of doing the sit, stay, down, all the AKC stuff, and then she would go to the shows and show them. So we would get them ready for her. So I already knew the AKC stuff, so I would just sit there and try to figure out tasks for Valentine to do for me, and I don’t know how I came up with get the medicine. Obviously, it was not perfect, but that’s like one of the hardest tasks you can teach a service dog is to go get something and bring it to you. And I just… I don’t remember how I put that together, but I do remember that I would sit there and think of different things for her to do for me and have her do them, ’cause I was also in a wheelchair for a little while.
05:01 AB: Wow.
05:03 PH: Anyhow, so yeah, so I taught her to do a whole bunch of stuff, and so it took me a little while to get better, and once I got my senses together, I realized I do need to do this ’cause I don’t want anybody to suffer like I did. I loved the Army, but they kinda lost me. By law, you can only be… It used to be called temporary disabled retirement list, and now it’s called the Wounded Warrior list. You can only be on that for five years, and I was on it for about nine, maybe 10, and then they backdated it, so they lost me in the system ’cause I was one of the first on the list.
05:37 AB: To go in.
05:41 PH: Yeah. And I didn’t want other people to feel like they were abandoned, other veterans, and that there was nobody that cared because I care.
05:48 AB: Right. Right.
05:48 PH: And there’s lots of Valentines…
05:51 AB: It sounds like you have a God-given talent for working with dogs.
05:56 PH: Well, and I love veterans, anything I can do to help. I had some of the best soldiers, and I don’t know what other people think about their soldiers, but I had some of the best soldiers, they would have done anything for me, and they were wonderful. Even the people that were assigned by judges to come work for me, ended up being some of the most wonderful people you could ever… And they… I watched them grow and become… It was just an amazing experience. And I enjoyed it. So anything I can do to help veterans, I will.
06:30 AB: So Piper, you’re a 501 [c] , right? Non-profit?
06:35 PH: Yes, ma’am.
06:36 AB: When did you officially kinda open for business?
06:40 PH: Officially on paper was 2010. It took the lawyer’s a couple of years to get everything… Well, it took me a while to find a lawyer too. And I did that, obviously because I realized when I was doing it, not being a 501, ’cause I started before that, nobody wants to donate to you, if you’re not a 501 [c] , and I was using and I still do, my retirement check goes into this program.
07:02 AB: Wow.
07:04 PH: Because that’s how much I believe in it and… Yeah.
07:09 AB: That’s awesome.
07:09 PH: And it’s totally free for the veteran.
07:11 AB: Oh, that’s great. Oh that’s wonderful.
07:12 PH: Completely free.
07:14 AB: I’m very curious, I’m excited to kinda deep dive in with you and really understand what your mission is and what you really are accomplishing, and one of the things I really love is that you rescue… You use rescue dogs to help change the vets’ lives, and I love that. Maybe talk with me a little bit about the process of finding dogs and local shelters and helping them get with their veterans.
07:40 PH: Yeah, it’s… So the first year that I had my senses together, when I first started this, I think I rescued… I went to get one dog and I left with seven.
07:51 AB: Aww Look at you. That’s great.
07:55 PH: So my neighbors, everybody was like, what are you doing with all these dogs?
08:00 AB: You’re not the cat lady, the dog lady, right? [laughter]
08:02 PH: Right, yeah. So I just want to get one and I left with seven. But I had dog walkers, ’cause I didn’t have a fenced in yard, that walked them five times a day. The only issue with rescuing from the actual animal control is that they’re scared, sick, so they can pass all the temperament tests that you give them, but then you get them home and you get them well, and they’re not the same dog or they’re not…
08:28 AB: Oh [08:28] ____ that’s curious. If you’re able to select just any old pup, you know, will anybody work?
08:34 PH: The only dogs we do not absolutely use are bloodhounds because they just want to smell and find and though we did have one once and he was perfect for his veteran, but after that, I was like, “No more bloodhounds, because they just wanna smell.” So it’s better to get them from local rescues that have already pulled and done some of the training or just some socialization ahead of time, and that way we know that they’re not scared or sick or things like that. But we do pull from animal controls, we’ve had some really good luck with a couple of different animal controls that have prisoners that walk them and work with them, and we have one animal control that we’re gonna teach the prisoners, some of the basic… Just sit, stay, down, and it’s gonna help… Most animals… Most dogs, I don’t know about cats, but most dogs are at animal control because nobody trained them.
09:33 AB: Right, right.
09:34 PH: So it’s gonna help them get adopted anyway, and we’re gonna do it for free, and we’re gonna teach them to teach AKC basic training for obedience. Yes.
09:44 AB: Right. Do your dogs have to be ADA compliant as well?
09:49 PH: They are by the time they finish, so… We’re a train the trainer program. Which is what we do in the service, and it cuts down on… Like if I had to do a dog for a person, it would take me all by myself five months, and if I did that, then I would only get one or two dogs done a year.
10:09 AB: A year. That’s right.
10:12 PH: Right. And so we do train the trainer, and the veteran comes to us and they pick out three dogs that they like based… I tell them, base it on what the dog is like, not what it looks like.
10:24 AB: That’s right.
10:25 PH: But people don’t listen. And then they get another dog.
10:29 AB: I know. You can’t help, you’re drawn to the cuteness, huh?
10:32 PH: Yes and then, they get a different dog later, but I tell them it’s not the Corvette you drive around town or the first car you had, like the first dog you had, it is the minivan that you’re driving from Virginia to California with your entire family, because this dog is for the long haul.
10:51 AB: That’s right, that’s right. Long haul… I love that.
10:55 PH: Yeah. Yeah.
10:56 AB: Give us some examples of what your service dog… Dogs are really there to do to really help with your veterans and service… Military service members.
11:06 PH: So one of the easiest tasks, it’s two but they go together, is post and block. So when you’re at a register, I don’t know if you’ve ever seen… Well, even these young vets, but the Vietnam vets, they will sit in the corner and watch all the doors… Well, same with the young vets, they sit in the corner, watch the doors and the windows, in case somebody comes in, so when they’re at the register, somebody might walk up on them or get in their space and it could really upset them internally, and they can go into a fugue or a disassociation, where they don’t really know where they are, and they’re walking and talking, but they’re in their head, maybe even back where whatever happened to them, ’cause it scares them and it’s an association.
11:49 AB: Trigger?
11:51 PH: Yes, exactly. So post and block, you teach the dog to post next to you at the register as a look out, and they’ll move if somebody comes within a certain distance that you can’t handle, and then block is when you’re going down the grocery aisle or you’re at Home Depot ’cause we train at Home Depot all the time, and the dogs physically body block a person from getting in your space so you don’t lose control of your Chi.
12:22 AB: Wow.
12:23 PH: So I just tell them to try as best as they can to stay calm when stuff like that happens, because you don’t wanna lose control because it could cause more damage than you know. The more you do it… Well, it’s just like having PTSD or a TBI.
12:41 AB: Right.
12:43 PH: Our brains physically, are changed. I saw one of my really, really good friends, was a Colonel and he lost his battle with PTSD. He was trying to drink himself to death and it was not fast enough so he took his own life, and I saw all these Christians online saying he was a coward and judging him, and he wasn’t a coward. He couldn’t help it, his brain had physically changed… It made me so mad. He was one of the bravest men I had ever, ever known in my whole life. He had a lot of grief because he was in Iraq and had a mission where he sent… And he knew it was gonna fail. And he sent… And he carried that burden with him from losing all those soldiers for years. And so it infuriated me, watching people say they’re cowards and no, they’re not, they’re not. They’re very brave.
13:33 PH: Our brains have physically changed and so we have to do things to change them back, which is possible because your brain is very resilient, it’s much more resilient than a spinal cord. I’ve had both injuries. So we give them a brain nutrition class, and part of the dog you’re focusing on this small thing in public, and it’s helping you grow, and I’m not a doctor, but I read it’s helping you grow the white matter in your brain, which is the part that’s damaged. The gray matter is your fight or flight, and it works the same way in a traumatic brain injury as PTSD. We both have smaller brains, we both have a lot of gray matter and not as much white logical thinking, and that’s where our anxiety comes, it’s from over and over going, “I gotta go, I gotta go, I gotta move, I gotta leave. Somebody’s after me, somebody’s watching me, somebody’s gonna shoot me, somebody’s gonna get me.” And the more you do that, the more that gray grows and so we focus on helping them…
14:35 AB: Helping that white matter… Yeah, grow.
14:36 PH: Grow, yeah. It’s like brain exercises for your white matter. And so the dog is, it’ll help you… It’s not a magic pill. It is for some people that have tried everything else in the world. So I’ve had a few veterans who are like, “This is the magic pill,” and it was for them, and that’s great. It was probably the final piece in the whole process for them, but other veterans, it’s what helps them get over the hump and get going with counseling…
15:02 AB: Yeah, get going again. Right.
15:05 PH: And their meds, and the dog, and eating right and…
15:09 AB: It’s all pieces of a puzzle, right?
15:11 PH: Yes. Meditating. We teach meditation, which a lot of them don’t like, but I say, just please try it because in five…
15:18 AB: Open mind.
15:19 PH: Five days, your brain can change. And then we do positive exercises every day, and within three days of positive, your brain starts changing.
15:29 AB: Wow, wow. You’re doing really amazing things. I can only imagine this being really fulfilling work, Piper, to be able to pair two buddies together. Is there a particular pairing maybe that stands out in your mind that where these two were just meant to be together?
15:47 PH: I’ve been doing this for so long. We have over 600 veterans, so there’s a bunch of parings, but I will tell you my first, my very first guy. In the beginning, the first two years, it was all Marines, ’cause when a Marine gets hurt, the whole unit feels it. They’re so tight-knit and close. And so I had a bunch of Marines that came from a unit that was decimated in Afghanistan, but the first guy that came, he was built like a plug, and I said, wide as he was tall, cute as could be. And I said… I’m just gonna make up a name. And I said, “Fred, were you a football player?” And he goes, “No, Ma’am.” I said, “Rugby?” He said, “No, Ma’am.” And I said, “Did you you do anything athletic at all?” “No, Ma’am.” [chuckle] And I was like, “Wow, what a waste,” ’cause he was, looked like he would mow you over.
16:42 AB: A big guy, huh?
16:43 PH: Yeah. Well at the… And just sweet as he could be, big, goofy, smile, nice as he could be. And I took him to meet, at that time, I had seven dogs, were my first dogs that I all started working and training on. And I said, “You can pick from any.” I made him walk all the dogs and I said, “Pick from any of these dogs.” And he picked the dog that looked like a plug. That was wide as it was tall. And the dog’s name was Buddy. And so he went home to Michigan with Buddy, and then he called me one night crying and he said, “Miss Piper, Miss Piper, I’m not gonna pass. I’m not gonna pass with my service dog.” And I said, “Why not?” And he said, “You know how we taught him to wake us up from nightmares?” And I said, “Yeah.” And so we taught them to roll the veteran over, crawl on them and they’ll stop when they feel like they’re gonna freak out, then they’ll crawl some more and they either get up to their face and kiss them or hug him. It’s changed since then, but that’s at that time what we did.
17:36 PH: And he said, “He doesn’t do that anymore. He won’t roll me over and crawl on me.” And I said, “Well, Fred, does he wake you up?” He goes, “Yeah.” And I said, “Well, what does he do?” And he said… And this dog was like 120 pounds. And he said, “He jumps on the bed and he shakes his collar real loud.” And I said, “Well, does it wake you up?” And he said, “Yeah.” And I said, “Well, then he’s doing his task.”
18:00 AB: Well, then he’s doing his job, right?
18:01 PH: He figured it out. And he goes, “Well, why do you think he’s doing that Miss Piper? Why do you not think he’s not doing what we taught him?” And I said, “Fred, because you’re big butt’s too big to roll over.”
18:11 PH: He’s had…
18:12 AB: A real job there to roll him over. Oh, that’s funny.
18:15 PH: I said he figured it out and he’s still doing his job.
18:19 AB: I’m waking you up one way or another, huh.
18:22 PH: Yeah. And they do do that, they will change the tasks on the veteran. They’ll figure out what’s worked. And then also we’re one of the…
18:31 AB: So smart, so smart.
18:34 PH: Only group that takes veterans that already have a dog, we let them understand, now this dog’s changing and it’s not gonna be your pet anymore, it’s your working dog. And a lot of times the people that already have a dog, the dog’s already doing the stuff that we’re gonna teach, we just have to tweak it so it’s an actual law-abiding or ADA-compliant task for that veteran. It’s pretty amazing.
18:58 AB: That is, it’s so amazing. Let’s talk about pairing, maybe for another minute though, is it ever a difficult process to match a veteran with their service dog?
19:09 PH: It can be. So the last class… So we haven’t had a huge selection of dogs because of COVID, and then everybody’s gone out and good for the dogs at animal control has gone out and adopted a dog so nobody wants to foster right now. So last couple of classes, we’ve had exactly the number of dogs for exactly the number of veterans. We try to have a extra… Yeah. And Everybody last class wanted the… We have an Italian Mastiff or a Cane Corso, but it’s slate grey. There’s a breeder in the area, and I’ve rescued about 11 of them, and they don’t really make the best service dogs, but sometimes you get lucky and some of these guys or ladies, dogs end up being good service dogs. But we had like eight people… Well, no, I can’t say eight ’cause that’s the whole class we had… I think we literally had four or five people that wanted that dog, so number one was that dog, number two was the German Shepherd because that’s what everybody sees in the [20:12] ____…
20:14 AB: That’s true, that’s true. On the posters and the commercials, that’s what you see. Yeah.
20:19 PH: Yeah, and number three was the Rottie, and I’m like, “Okay, what about my paper brown bag little lab here that’s awesome?”
20:31 AB: Great dog. That’s right, that’s right.
20:35 PH: And so… Well, it didn’t end up being a fight, people let go… They were like, “No, let him have it.” “No, let him have it.” So it worked out, but it was a little frustrating ’cause everybody wanted the same Corvette…
20:45 AB: That’s right. There you go.
20:47 PH: And not the minivan.
20:50 AB: Piper, so you’re helping veterans that have experienced a multitude of traumas. Is that right?
20:56 PH: Yes, yeah. First of all, we help veterans with any disability now, except completely blind, but one of the biggest things that we’ve been doing, well since the beginning, is we’ve been helping military sexual trauma. As far as I know, there’s not many groups on the East Coast that do that at all. I think that other groups are changing, but we’ve always accepted military sexual trauma because it’s very real and it is very there, and it is very debilitating for the individual, whether it’s a woman or a man, it is energy and life-sucking. So we do everything we can to help them piece their lives back together. I can’t imagine what it would be like to be in combat with a person next to you, and you’re fending off the enemy, and that person has done something like that to you.
21:52 AB: To you.
21:53 PH: Can’t even imagine what that’s like for any of those individuals.
21:56 AB: And how important, now that they are getting the support they need to combat and get over… You know, find relief in this trauma. Piper, For some of our listeners, that are, may be wondering about your veterans or military service members, how they’re selected, is there an application process, and do they have to only be local to you and Peachtree City or Atlanta.
22:18 PH: Right. They come from all over the United States. We have… Like I said, we have 600 now veterans that have come to us and they just need to get to us, the training and the dog and all that’s free, and we give them crates and leashes and stuff to get started. We also give them dog nutrition classes too, I forgot to tell you that earlier, ’cause a lot of… I’d say about a third of our clients have never owned a dog.
22:43 AB: Really? Wow.
22:45 PH: Yes, it’s pretty incredible. And then those clients are the ones that are usually like, “Oh, this dog’s my soulmate.”
22:52 AB: I know it.
22:55 PH: It’s pretty neat. It’s pretty neat.
22:57 AB: But there is an application process.
22:58 PH: There is.
23:00 AB: Okay.
23:00 PH: And it’s online, and I do require them to get a note for a doctor because I do not want to feed into the, let’s train your pet to go everywhere with you just because. So they have to get a doctor’s note that says they need or would benefit from a service dog. Just ’cause I don’t know them.
23:24 AB: Sure. Sure.
23:24 PH: But yeah, and there are some veterans that they don’t finish the process, and the good thing about the state of Georgia, and there’s a few other states that are still like that, you can take a service dog in training anywhere. And I had a trainer that was super strict once, we’re all volunteers, and he had been a Ranger and he wanted to fail this guy… This gentleman had a dog that didn’t even like treats, so he was hard to train and… Anyway, and I told my trainer at the time, I said, you know, this guy has been living in a closet for five years, his wife brings the dinner to the closet, if that dog with as little as it knows is getting that man out of that closet and out of that house, to go shopping or go out with his wife…
24:14 AB: Or a walk?
24:14 PH: Yeah, I don’t really care if that dog’s in training for the rest of that dog’s life.
24:19 AB: Right, the bigger picture here, right?
24:22 PH: Is his quality of life. ‘Cause he literally… We’ve had about five veterans that have literally lived in their closet for years.
24:34 AB: Wow. Wow.
24:34 PH: Afraid of what’s outside.
24:36 AB: And I’m sure a lot of our listeners too, unless you have maybe a family member or a friend. You just don’t know. You know, you just don’t know.
24:46 PH: Right, right. I mean mention it, you could save somebody’s life just by… We already know the elderly live longer having pets, and there’s been a couple of times where I’ve given cats to veterans because the wife wouldnt let them have a dog, and every person that got a cat, every veteran that got a cat ended… I’m like, “They don’t have support,” which that’s just how I felt. There was like six of them. Every one of them ended up getting divorced, but they just didn’t… But something is better than nothing. So if…
25:17 AB: That’s right.
25:19 PH: So if the spouse was alright with the…
25:20 AB: That’s what these service dogs are right? They’re support.
25:24 PH: Yeah, yeah. But we do require them, for the dog to be ADA compliant, they have to learn two tasks by law… I mean three. By law, they have to learn three. It used to be one, now it’s three to make sure that they are compliant and they do do that, even the gentleman that’s dog didn’t like treats, his dog eventually learned the task, it just took him longer than the normal veteran.
25:50 AB: Well It’s been a decade now Piper, you said 2010, when you first really got started…
25:54 PH: On paper.
25:55 AB: And you’ve been doing some amazing work, you know what has been maybe your biggest hope for Healing4Heroes?
26:03 PH: The best day of my life would be when a veteran doesn’t need any more help.
26:07 PH: Yeah.
26:09 PH: But I don’t foresee that in my lifetime.
26:15 AB: Yeah.
26:15 PH: But I would like to have a facility, I would like to have little camps for veterans to stay in and not just come for training, but come for bonding. A lot of times it’s much easier for us to talk to other veterans ’cause we understand, we can’t tell civilians like stuff we’ve seen and stuff that’s happened or stuff that we’ve done accidentally or purposely.
26:40 AB: ‘Cause they wouldn’t understand, right?
26:40 PH: Yeah. It’s just… I mean there’s a lot of veterans are afraid you’re gonna think that we’re animals or whatever, but we… Honestly, like I joined the service because I love my country, and I joined the service ’cause I love my family and my friends.
26:55 AB: Right.
26:57 PH: And that’s the whole… I gave up a $250,000 job in 1995 to make $20,000 on active duty to serve and go all these wonderful, crazy places, and just do as much good as I could for the world and for the United States.
27:18 AB: You are… You’re doing some really amazing work at home right now, Peachtree City in Georgia. So it’s just, I know our listeners are wondering if they’re curious about picking up an application, maybe for their family member or a friend that they know that’s a veteran or an active military service member. Can you kinda tell us where is the best place that they can go to reach out to you to get in touch and connect with Healing4Heroes as well as maybe they’re inspired to make a donation. Is that possible too?
27:51 PH: Yes. On the website, it’s www.healing H-E-A-L-I-N-G the number four heroes H-E-R-O-E-S.org, it’s healing4heroes.org. I would like to say too, you may know a veteran that maybe they don’t need help, but their children might, because veterans have a 14% higher rate of having children that are on the spectrum. So yeah, so we have a lot of children with autism in our veteran families, and we’ve helped so far, we’ve helped 37 children get service dog and they go and they send me the year book pictures too. They go to school with their dogs and they’re on the spectrum, but it helps put the whole family back together. Whether it’s for the…
28:42 AB: That’s so heartwarming to hear.
28:44 PH: Yeah, whether it’s for the veteran or the child, it offers them some relief so that everybody can get… That everybody can heal.
28:52 AB: The support they need.
28:53 PH: Yeah, exactly. From a non-speaking furry thing [chuckle] they get the support they need.
29:00 AB: Hey, they show some love, real love, right?
29:02 PH: Right. Well, it’s… Life is about finding joy and living.
29:06 AB: Can you imagine if we all greeted each other the way our dogs and fur babies do [laughter] the world would be a better place.
29:15 PH: Right, right. That’d be a good video. Us dressed up like dogs and greeting each other. [laughter]
29:19 AB: There you go. There you go. Well, Piper, thank you so much for your time and your insight today. Sharing with us your mission and what all the good work you’re doing, we really appreciate it, and we wish you all the best for Healing4Heroes.
29:34 PH: Yes ma’am. Thank you, thank you so much for having me.
29:36 AB: Alright guys until next time, I’m Anna Bell.