BRADENTON, Fla. — On the bright afternoon of Feb. 4, 1970, a land mine tore apart a South Vietnamese soldier who stood maybe 10 feet away from Pfc. Bob Calderon, as the two were returning to a rural village from a joint patrol. The spray of shrapnel knocked the 19-year-old Marine off his feet and forced surgeons to amputate his mangled legs above the knee. For the next several months, he was totally blind.
Calderon would regain vision in his right eye, then reassemble what was left into a portrait of resilience. He would graduate from a wheelchair into prosthetic limbs. He went to school on the G.I. bill, learned a trade and entered the workforce as a mechanical draftsman. He learned to play through the pain of embedded metal fragments so numerous he can't take an MRI scan. He became a competitive wheelchair bowler, played wheelchair hoops, and traveled as far away as New Zealand to become the USA World 9-Ball Champion in a billiards tournament.
The Michigan native also had a way with the ladies. He married once, twice, three times. He attributes much of the failure of the first two to post-traumatic stress disorder, a diagnosis he didn't get until some 15 years ago. But he fathered two kids. For a man who can make the literal claim that "half of me is still in Vietnam," no shelf seemed too high.
But gravity and the years have taken a toll. Back and shoulders aching from the pressure pain of prosthetics, Calderon abandoned his artificial legs for a wheelchair. Laura, his wife of nine years, succumbed to breast cancer in 2012. In January 2017, his 39-year-old son, Shawn, died of liver disease. Willpower at a low ebb, walls getting tighter, Calderon discovered he needed his peer-support circle at a local Department of Veterans Affairs facility more than ever.
In May, a fellow Vietnam survivor showed up for a group session with a new companion at his side. It was a yellow lab, on a harness, courtesy of the nationally renowned nonprofit Southeastern Guide Dogs. Calderon's buddy suggested Calderon might need a little canine help, too.
A phone call or two later, a man who wondered if he could take it anymore was on track to meet a girl named Mae.
Mae now belongs to Bob Calderon. He answers the doorbell in his wheelchair and beams as he introduces Mae to the visitor. She does not bark. The tip of Mae's tail wags in appreciation of the hand sniff offer, but the wagging is restrained; after all, the blue jacket is on.
Calderon takes her outside to demonstrate her skill set — right, left, stop, sit, down, the basics, nothing fancy right now — and Mae is smart on her marks. But she can do much more. She can open doors, fetch her leash and, in the event Calderon takes a spill, pull his lightweight titanium wheelchair to him with a harness-and-tennis ball rigging.
Back inside, when the jacket comes off, it becomes clear that Mae has never met a stranger. She rolls on her back as the visitor approaches, tail wagging furiously now, belly up, a stranger's fingers finding the sweet spot that sets a hind leg in reflex motion like she's pumping a bicycle at 100 mph. Later, she will sit quietly, minding her own business, never cloying, as Calderon finishes his story. Whether she can jump on the couch is up to Calderon.
The dreaded Feb. 8 anniversary is just around the corner. Calderon will remember the Marine who kept him from bleeding out. His name was Howard Blakely. He came home in a coffin a month later. Calderon retains a keepsake he cannot bear to toss. It's a small, vertical, pocket-sized spiral notebook, in which he inscribed latitude and longitude coordinates from when he was in-country. Its pages are dark with young blood, his own. Nearly half a century ago.
But it is 2018 now, and there are new pages waiting to be written. Mae is with him now. He can tell her anything, and she is ready is ready for anything — a trip to the mall, the restaurant, a group therapy session, hours on the floor giving him her undivided attention. Calderon is awe-struck over the simplicity of the arrangement: "I didn't think I would ever be able to love anything or anyone again."
Initially established to provide guide dogs to the blind, Southeastern's range of training regimens has expanded since its inception in 1982, and now delivers canines targeting challenges faced by veterans.
Without a dime of government help, funded solely by private donations, the 33-acre spread in rural Palmetto operates on roughly $10 million a year. Mae, born on Dec. 26, 2015, is merely the latest of 3,100 dogs dispatched into serving the disadvantaged over the past 35 years.
It takes hundreds of "raisers" scattered across Florida and seven other states to house, feed and groom the 250 or so dogs born each year on the Southeastern campus. Volunteers take the puppies from age 10 weeks until they're ready for specialized behavior training back in Palmetto, which can begin at 18 months. Like the dogs they supervise, raisers must be trained and certified as well. They teach basic house manners: Sleep in your box, don't climb into bed, keep your paws off the table, etc. In return, the raisers learn tough lessons as well — how to say goodbye.
"This is going to sound like a cliché, because all our dogs are special," says Jan Nichter of St. Petersburg. "But Mae is very, very special."
For Nichter, a volunteer since 2010, Mae was her eighth Southeastern puppy. For fellow volunteer and Clearwater resident Nancy Simons, who swapped out puppy-raising duties with Nichter every few weeks, Mae was puppy No. 11. Like the children they raised to become independent, Simons and Nichter forged emotional bonds with the dogs as they introduced them to the world at large, into the arena of public places and the montage of sights, sounds and scents.
"It's bittersweet," Simons says. "You raise these puppies like family, knowing they're going to leave you, they're going to go off to college or a career, and that someone else out there is going to get their heart. But when it happens, it means you've done your job."
Simons and Nichter are at a loss to account for that specific tangible thing that made Mae different from the others, but you can hear it in their voices. They delivered their well-mannered youngster to Southeastern's behavioral specialists in April. When she was accomplished enough to be matched with Calderon just before Christmas, Mae was — in terms of people-hour investment — a $60,000 dog.
The Southeastern tradition includes a graduation ceremony, in which raisers get a chance to meet the lucky new owners, who receive their canine assistants at no charge. "When you see them work for the first time, that's such a special moment," says Simons. "And the dogs, when they see you, they turn inside out."
The transformation has taken less than a month.