When the family of Chief Warrant Officer 2 Rusten Smith – one of nine soldiers who died during a night-training exercise at Fort Campbell earlier this year – prepared for his funeral, they knew they wanted Maverick by their side.
“When you reflect on those sad times, you can also reflect on those good — those specific acts of good,” said Rick Morris, Smith’s uncle. “And those things make you smile on a horrible circumstance or a horrible event. And when you can think of that … I know that Maverick played a part in that, [which] makes it that much more special.”
Maverick, the Fort Leonard Wood USO’s resident therapy dog, has been there for countless service members and their families over the past six years. He was recently named American Humane’s 2023 Hero Dog in the therapy category.
“I know what that dog’s capable of,” Morris said, “and when you know that you need that, you know it’s going to make a difference.”
Kelly Brownfield, Maverick’s handler and a self-proclaimed proud military brat, said when she first met Maverick, he melted her heart.
“His big old ears and his eyes, they just capture you, and I knew looking into his eyes that he was going to be something amazing,” said Brownfield, who has been with the USO for nearly 15 years. “I just knew he was meant to be with me, and I knew he was going on to do good things.”
Creating the therapy dog program
In 2012, Brownfield rescued two Great Danes that she brought to the USO so the troops could play with them. Missouri Patriot Paws’ Susan Hinkle, a friend of Brownfield’s who was volunteering that day, saw one of the puppies, Bandit, had crawled into a soldier’s lap and the soldier was crying.
“She said that dog was meant to be a therapy dog,’” Brownfield said.
Hinkle mentored Brownfield in training Bandit, who became an official therapy dog after turning 1. He became part of the USO’s therapy dog pilot program, which was made official around 2014 or 2015.
“Maverick was Bandit’s protégée,” Brownfield said, noting that the Danes cross-trained together for about year before Maverick passed his therapy dog test.
The USO Canine Program, born from her “three amazing dogs,” now boasts 39 teams across the USO system, according to Brownfield.
She said the program was meant to start with just having a dog in the USO facility, but a chief warrant officer asked if a dog could go to the military police station and help with an interview.
“Really Fort Leonard Wood helped grow the program from outside the USO,” Brownfield said.
The dogs now work with MPs if there’s a “sensitive interview” that needs to be conducted, in behavioral health, and with suicide watch, according to Brownfield. Some of the biggest requests they receive are for the dogs to escort children and other family members at the burial of a service member — much like Maverick did for Morris’ family.
“To have Maverick by their side, a 150-pound Great Dane is literally their rock,” Brownfield said.
When meeting children in that scenario, Brownfield said she gives them Maverick’s military coin and tells them they can squeeze it and Maverick will be right there with them.
When Brownfield got the call that Maverick was named American Humane’s therapy dog of the year, she said she was ecstatic.
“I vaguely remember falling to my knees,” Brownfield said. “Maverick ran to me, I was crying … I was a mess because we had been submitting the dog’s files for many years. I was used to that call of, ‘Thank you for what you do, maybe next year.’”
When he’s at the USO, Brownfield said, Maverick is known for “giving people his paw.”
“He is free to roam in the center and it’s amazing,” she said. “We could have 600 plus service members in here on a Sunday… and he will hone in on a soldier … put his paw on their leg, lean against them. And you will just see that soldier break down and cry.”
Morris said that Maverick being honored didn’t surprise him at all.
“I was so glad that they both received the recognition nationwide or worldwide because, again, it should be something that happens more than just one dog in one location at one post,” Morris said.
He has witnessed soldiers’ demeanor completely change around the therapy dog, not realizing the dog’s purpose.
“To see them, just their reaction, it’s just incredible,” Morris said.
Morris said it’s amazing that through its natural instincts, an animal like Maverick can tell when a person is in need.
“It might be just a nudge from the big ole head or that paw in your lap,” Morris said.