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Enterprise native and family coach canines in support of veterans

Shown are Luke Armstrong and his wife Kimberley with their children, Lily and Lex. Courtesy photo.
Shown are Luke Armstrong and his wife Kimberley with their children, Lily and Lex. Courtesy photo.
It was the Fall of 2019 and Luke and Kimberly Armstrong were searching for an opportunity to give back to their community. They wanted to find a veteran-focused charity to support, as they both were raised in military families. In the early days of their marriage, they had each decided to make community service a core value for their own family and sought out an organization in which their two children could serve as well. Before long, this family of four was on their way to welcoming their first four-legged student into their home.

Luke, a native of Enterprise, Alabama, and Kimberly, a native of Northern Virginia, each serve Naval Facilities Engineering Systems Command (NAVFAC) in Washington D.C. Kimberly is an environmental engineer who has served at NAVFAC commands around the world for the last twenty years. Luke joined NAVFAC in 2007 as a community planner and is currently serving as the Facilities Management Division Director for Naval Support Activity Washington. They met each other in Guam while serving at NAVFAC Marianas, fell in love, got married and have two children, Lily and Lex. All together, the Armstrongs are a true NAVFAC family.

The Armstrongs leveraged the Combined Federal Campaign, the world’s largest and most successful annual workplace charity campaign, to find the right veteran-focused charity to support. They chose Semper K9, an organization that rescues dogs from shelters and trains them to be service dogs at no cost for disabled veterans.

“Years ago, a friend of mine at Naval Support Activity Bethesda, Steve Clagett, introduced me to the idea of fostering and training dogs into service animals,” said Luke Armstrong. “It took some time to find an organization that would allow, at the time, a six-year-old and an eight-year-old to volunteer. After research and then participating in an orientation with the trainers and volunteer coaches, we knew we had found an organization our family would love to support.”

The entire family began training to become canine coaches. Over the course of six months, they all took classes and were examined on their canine coaching capabilities. After passing with flying colors, they received their first dog to train in June 2020. Upon successfully graduating their first dog, they were assigned their second. That dog’s name is Sammy.

Sammy is part poodle and part cattle dog. He has a friendly personality and is agile and intelligent. Just the right combination of attributes to be a standout service dog.

“At just six-months-old, we were already working with Sammy to be able to retrieve keys, phones, and medicine bottles—all items that a veteran may need assistance with at home,” Luke said. “He loves to play and run in the backyard and on playgrounds with the kids. Being part poodle and part cattle dog, he does tend to herd the family, or at least keep tabs on where each member is in the house.”

Sammy came to the Armstrongs from Operation Paws for Homes and is sponsored by the Marine Corps Marathon team, Team Semper K9. Each service dog is named after a veteran, and Sammy is named in memory of the first Commandant of the Marine Corps, Major Samuel Nicholas. Often, he would be spotted on the Washington Navy Yard, accompanying Luke to work at the office.

When not hard at work with Luke or herding up Kimberly and the kids at home, Sammy attended weekly classes with the Armstrongs and monthly evaluations with the Semper K9 trainers. Once a potential service dog has mastered fundamental tasks, a short list of veterans who may be a good match is developed and the dogs are trained to perform specific actions tailored to their veteran’s needs. The selected veteran will then meet the dog and they will go through two weeks of training and bonding together. Sammy has now successfully passed the training tests and is transitioning with his selected Veteran. He will graduate from the Semper K9 program and officially become a licensed service animal in February 2022.

“People often tell us that they could not possibly give up a dog that has become a part of their family for a year or more,” said Luke. “However, on graduation day when you get to meet the veteran and can see how happy they are, or to see updates from the veteran with pictures thanking you and the organization for giving them their life back—even the kids are grateful to have helped in some way. We are able to show the children the value of service, the satisfaction of hard work, and the rewards of discipline.”

The Armstrong family continues to train service dogs and are looking forward to graduating each animal as a way to give back to those who have served. They are also looking forward to continuing their volunteer work with Semper K9 and welcoming their next four-legged friend into their home.

This article was written by the Naval Facilities Engineering Systems Command Washington Public Affairs.