Willow and Rosie: The Ordinary Miracle of Pets

Willow and Rosie: The Ordinary Miracle of Pets

From Chicken Soup for the Dog Lover's Soul

Willow and Rosie:
The Ordinary Miracle of Pets

Dogs are our link to paradise. They don’t know evil or jealousy or discontent.

Milan Kundera

In the early morning hours of September 13, 2001, the Sheraton Hotel in Crystal City, Virginia, was teeming with military personnel—setting up tables, installing phone lines, laying computer cables. Chaplains, Red Cross volunteers, FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency), the Salvation Army, everyone had a purpose amid the controlled chaos.

The hotel was the official assistance center for Pentagon families waiting for news on the fate of loved ones. It was less than forty-eight hours since the 9/11 assault on America, and the atmosphere was one of immense sorrow, bewilderment and tension—hardly the time or place for dogs. As Sue and Lee Peetoom made their way through the busy operations with their two Labrador retrievers, Rosie andWillow, they saw the questioning looks on the faces of people they passed. Several times, the Peetooms heard, “What are dogs doing here?”

Rosie and Willow, both over ten years of age, were veteran therapy dogswith Spiritkeepers out of Fredericksburg, Virginia. Certified through Therapy Dogs International (TDI), they wore the official insignia on the red bandannas tied around their necks. The volunteer coordinator had never heard of the concept of bringing dogs to comfort people at a trauma site, but she welcomed them anyway and invited them to stay the day. Sue and Lee and their dogs were set up in the path between the hotel ballroom, now dubbed “the briefing room,” and all the services being assembled for grieving relatives.

Two big dogs in the middle of a passageway swelling with arriving families could hardly be missed, so before long, people became curious and asked about them. As Sue and Lee explained the purpose of therapy dogs, Rosie and Willow wagged their tails and snuggled in to receive lots of pats and hugs. Soon chaplains as well as military personnel were stopping by to see what it was all about.

That afternoon, hundreds of people gathered in the ballroom for the briefing. When it ended, unimaginable sorrow hung over the place. Silently they filed out—parents clung to their children, elderly couples held hands as they walked in pain. But as the first of the crowd neared the dogs, Rosie and Willow stood up ready to receive them. Kids came over to pet them. Then their families joined in. A military escort leaned down to hug Willow. There were chaplains. Then volunteers. The dogs graciously took them all in.

Across the hall, a serious-looking officer watched. When the crush of people passed, he stepped over to say hello, giving each dog a pat before he moved on.

The officer turned out to be the man in charge, General John Van Alstyne. At his request the dogs were asked to return. And they did—every day for the month the center was active. Backed up by forty-two teams from therapy groups in Virginia and Maryland, the dogs became a symbol of strength and love for all.

According to Sue, no words could express the incredible sadness they witnessed. There was the leather-clad biker who sat on the floor, his tattoo-covered arms draped over Willow and Rosie as he sobbed into their fur. His wife had perished inside the Pentagon. And the woman who became so overwhelmed with grief, not even the chaplains could console her. Rosie was called in and, laying her head in the woman’s lap, gently licked her hands. The woman wrapped her arms around the big dog and for ten minutes they stayed like that, Rosie accepting all her sorrow until her tears subsided.

Two women waited to learn the fate of their missing husbands—one with three toddlers and a baby on the way, the second a recent arrival from Central America. Neither one spoke English. The dogs needed no words to comfort them. A child who couldn’t face a family visit to the site where his daddy was lost chose instead to find comfort with the dogs.

Hundreds of people with eyes full of pain still stopped with a smile, no matter how small, to say hello and hug Rosie and Willow. General Van Alstyne came by several times a day to give the dogs cookies and take a break from the grief, always expressing his gratitude for the important work of the therapy team. A chaplain confessed to pretending to be a “therapy dog” by barking and acting silly for the children who gathered in the hallway each morning to await their arrival.

Sue has vivid memories of the other gentle “comfort dogs” as they became known—from Yorkies to Newfies, pit bulls to greyhounds and mixed breeds of every size— all putting in fourteen-hour days to ease the pain of those who lost so much and refresh others who gave so much of themselves. A hundred times a day people stopped to thank them.

At the one-monthmemorial servicewith President Bush, the therapy teams were honored. In preparation for closing the center, a four-foot-tall plush dog was positioned in a place of honor. Throughout the course of that final day, it became covered with mementos from all the people involved:meal tickets, Red Cross tissues,military insignias, caps, business cards, even a Bible. A dog tag inscribed, “Therapy Dog” was hung round its neck. Willow’s official scarf was added, and the “dog” was presented to the general as a symbol of the center’s achievements.

Since the tragic events of 9/11, both Willow and Rosie have passed on. One can’t help but believe those two gentle angels were greeted with hugs in heaven by the people who perished that day.

Audrey Thomasson

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