A D.C. reporter is working with a national service dog charity in order to train a puppy in honor of a Marine who was wounded while serving in Iraq.
Andrea McCarren, an award-winning multimedia reporter at Washington's CBS affiliate, is raising an English Labrador Retriever named for Marine Corporal Justin Bunce. Once trained, “Bunce,” the puppy, will be placed with a wounded warrior in need of physical or psychological assistance. McCarren and Bunce are part of the non-profit Warrior Canine Connection.
The charity breeds its own puppies. For three months volunteer "puppy petters,” a group including wounded warriors, Gold Star families, and average citizens, spend time with the dogs to help them get used to being around people.
The charity then uses volunteers like McCarren, called “puppy parents,” to raise prospective pups for two years, socialize them, and teach them basic commands. From there, professional service dog trainers, often assisted by wounded warriors, teach the dogs more complex commands. The group has trained 25 dogs since their founding in 2011. Today there are about 60 dogs, including Bunce, currently in training.
Rick Yount, the founder of Warrior Canine Connection, said the role McCarren and others play is key to the program and, perhaps, the most difficult job. "We couldn't do this without puppy parents who take the dogs in, provide a loving home, teach the dogs house manners, and also help with the socialization of the dogs," he said. "Getting them out to experience different environments like the mall, the movies, and restaurants."
"Andrea is one of our amazing puppy parents who take these dogs in at about 10 to 12 weeks of age and then, just after they get through the adolescent stage and they've finished with all the issues that a young puppy brings, when the dog is just settling in and becoming very easy to cope with and a wonderful family member they give that dog away to a veteran,” he continued.
“These are people that give a chunk of their heart away … It's a very selfless act."
Bunce accompanies McCarren everywhere she goes. Since McCarren is a reporter in the nation's capital, the puppy often finds himself around politicians and celebrities. He has met the Redskins' Robert Griffin III, the Capitols' Alexander Ovechkin, and the Defense Department's Ash Carter.
Being a reporter and raising Bunce can put all kinds of unexpected stress on McCarren, but she says the rewards far outweigh the difficulties.
"Being a television journalist in D.C. is extremely demanding," she said. "The hours are long and unpredictable. Bunce has become incredibly adaptable. He's at my side on every assignment and on every live shot. He's been to the White House, the Pentagon, and the Capitol several times. We covered the blizzard of 2016 together, working 14-hour days and staying in a hotel room. He's been to crime scenes and with me in the back of a police cruiser during an all-night shoot arresting suspected drunk drivers."
Bunce has gained a large following thanks to his escapades covering various stories with McCarren around DC. The Facebook page dedicated to tracking Bunce's adventures has nearly 30,000 likes and features fan letters and fan art dedicated to the pup-in-training.
Corporal Bunce, whose own rehabilitation has been helped along by service dogs provided by the Warrior Canine Connection, loves his namesake.
"Everyone from the Queen of England to the Hounds of Hell know that not only am I a Devil Dog but I'm a dog guy," he said. "I love the puppies."
He hopes that one day Bunce will end up with "a veteran who needs him and loves him as much as Andrea does right now. She's cuckoo for him and vice versa."
Cpl. Bunce is one of many American soldiers who have experienced traumatic brain injuries during their tours of service in Iraq and Afghanistan. He was hit by an IED planted inside wall during his second tour of duty in 2004 near the Iraq-Syria border. It left him nearly blind in one eye and with severe damage to the right side of his brain, which limits the use of his left arm and leg.
The rehab process he has gone through has been long and stressful, as the Wall Street Journal reported in 2014. Cpl. Bunce’s own service dogs have helped him through the years. "It added a lot of light to my life," he said. "Dealing with traumatic brain injury and the broken, absolutely unacceptable rehab system."
Those involved in his rehab agree that the dogs have had a remarkable impact on Cpl. Bunce.
"His motivation, once he sees them, is completely uplifted," Lisa Beach, a member of Cpl. Bunce's rehab team, said. "He could be having a morning where he's just kind of dragging a little bit and the dogs walk through the door and we see some pep in his step."
Cpl. Bunce hopes his namesake will help another veteran in the way that charity’s dogs have helped him.
"I am profoundly blessed," he said.
The dogs “keep me going, and everyday I get better for my girls, my angels."
Update 3:30 P.M.: An earlier version of this post incorrectly stated that the Warrior Canine Connection was founded in 2005, and had trained 30 dogs since its inception. It was founded in 2011, and has trained 25 dogs.