When Jon Gurley has nightmares, Gunner rubs a wet nose on his face to comfort him.
When Gurley wakes up, he says “Gunner, light” and a helpful paw illuminates their Boynton Beach bedroom. As part of their morning routine, Gunner also brings Gurley his cell phone and medication.
Gunner is a service dog, and without him, Gurley – a U.S. Marine Corps veteran who suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder – may not have survived.
“After years of nightmares, trying to cope with everyday life and many in-patient services from the various veteran (VA) facilities, I was reaching my end,” said Gurley, 68. “Then another disabled veteran recommended that I contact Paws 4 Liberty and it changed my life.”
Born in Akron, Ohio, Gurley entered the Marines in 1955. He was a combat field wireman and served in the Vietnam War. He joined the Ohio National Guard as a flying crew chief in 1975 and served until 1981, when he was honorably discharged after being diagnosed with PTSD.
He moved to South Florida, and opened a barber shop in Singer Island, where he said he was known as the “Island Barber.” He retired in 2009.
Through it all, his past and his sickness haunted him. He suffered several breakdowns and landed in multiple military hospitals.
The he met another veteran with a service dog and called Paws 4 Liberty. He submitted an application and interviewed with director and founder Heidi Spirazza, who was inspired to create Paws 4 Liberty (P4L) right after 9/11.
“I decided that day in my kitchen,” Spirazza said in a press release. “We were going to war again and I knew returning soldiers would need service dogs.”
As dictated by Assistance Dogs International (ADI), Gurley went through a three-week team training as all candidates must learn how to work with their dogs.
Shortly after, Gurley was united with Gunner, who helped his new owner finally find peace.
“Paws 4 Liberty literally saved my life,” Gurley said. “I’m coping with life now, and I’m not alone. Before I was depressed, and now I have someone to love me unconditionally.”
In addition to his daily companion, Gurley also harbors love for the family of his son, Darren, a driver engineer for Delray Beach Fire Rescue. Darren is married to Kimberly, and has four adolescent children who Gurley dotes over and visits whenever he can.
Spirazza established Paws 4 Liberty in 2006 with the goal of providing post 9/11 vets with service dogs at no charge. P4L’s 2014 goal is to match at least 15 veterans with service dogs.
Paws 4 Liberty is one of 76 nonprofit organizations featured in the third annual “Directory of Extraordinary Charities,” which is designed to connect donors with outstanding and underfunded charities in the community. For more information, call 561-328-3250 or visit the website, www.extraordinarycharities.org.