CINCINNATI — A sheep dog protects its flock -- watching out for predators and herding them to safety when necessary. In this case, the story isn't about an actual dog, but in reality it’s more of what the sheep dog represents that makes it a powerful symbol for a veteran and first responder group who is always at the ready to serve and protect others.
“Sheepdogs, which are a small part of the population, that are just wired to serve and protect," Air Force veteran Dave Jardon said. "And that's our veterans and our first responders that serve community states and our country."
In 2015, Jardon stumbled across the non-profit organization Sheep Dog Impact Assistance while on a trip to Las Vegas. He had served in the US Air Force from 1983 to 1990 and flew C-130 cargo planes as a Special Operations instructor pilot and was searching for a new way to serve his community.
He said there was something that spoke to him about the mission of Sheep Dog IA and the founder of the organization Marine Sergeant Major Lance Nutt inspired him to help them expand.
“He said, 'We have nothing in Ohio, Indiana, and Kentucky. Go build a team,'” Jardon said. “So we went out in 2015, built a team. And then quickly, within the year, we formed a chapter.”
Nationally the organization has over 5,000 members in 18 states. In the Tri-State area there are 124 team members, volunteers and supporters.
One of those members is former firefighter Theresa Heeger, who joined two years ago.
“As veterans or first responders, it sounds crazy. But we don't know how to stop serving,” she said. “Like it's in our blood. And that's really all we know.”
While 2020 has been a year of home confinement and anything but normal life during this pandemic, Jardon said they’ve been busier than ever.
“This year alone, we went down to Tennessee twice to Chattanooga and to Nashville when they had the tornadoes back in February and March, we've been to Texas, we've been to North Carolina, we've been to Baton Rouge,” he said.
The local chapter sends out a message to the members, supporters and volunteers as well as local emergency management in the disaster area to see where they can help.
“We have a special DRM, which is disaster relief missions,” Jardon said. “We have a special part of our organization that that's their job, they reach out to the people in charge, the emergency management people in charge, and they ask if they need help. If they say yes, then we immediately mobilize our people and assets."
While many of the missions are miles away, this November the group found the need to mobilize closer to home.
Friday, Nov. 13, a fire engulfed the home of Navy veteran David Faw and his wife, Patricia.
“16-year-old and 8-year-old was doing remote learning, and Gunner the dog literally let them know something wasn't right,” said Theresa Heeger.
The Faws have four children -- wwo boys ages 16 and 10 and two girls who are 8 and 4. The fire destroyed everything.
Once word got to Theresa Heeger, she shared what had happened with Dave Jardon, and the Sheep Dog IA team went into action.
The Faw family moved in with relatives in Goshen temporarily, but the Sheep Dog IA team knew they would need everything to get the family back on their feet and into a new place. That's when the donations started pouring in.
“We've gotten toys, clothing, we've got bedroom sets for every child. And mom and dad, they all have beds now, dressers -- I mean anything you can think of we have received for this family,” Heeger said.
The team packed up several trucks and trailers full of the donations and met the family at a small storage unit to hold the items until they’re ready to move into their new place.
During the interaction, Jardon noticed something he didn’t expect -- his granddaughter was introduced to the Faws' 4-year-old and, kids being kids, began to play.
“I watched the mom and dad. The whole demeanor just changed,” Jardon said. “They shared with us that since before Thanksgiving, that day was the first time their kids were able to be kids. They hadn't seen them laugh or play or run around or do anything. You could see that that hope was being restored just in the fact that Mom and Dad can now see that their kids are going to be okay. They're going to get through this.”
Jardon said that the Sheep Dog IA organization has another mission: to help reduce veteran suicide by getting veterans off the couch and get them to be active in their community.
“One of our hashtags, 'get off the couch,' because that's the worst thing you can do is sit there in the house by yourself playing video games, and not doing anything, not making contribution," he said. "So we give these men and women a way to contribute back to their community, back to their country, and serve and protect through natural disaster relief through outdoor adventures.”
Whether it’s through disaster relief or a 5K run or a grueling Tough Mudder competition, the sense of serving and camaraderie from their time in the service or as a first responder plays a critical role.
Between March and September, as the pandemic grew, the team attached themselves to the Freestore Foodbank, and the government food distribution to help feed families in need.
“We delivered over 350,000 pounds of food at these different county food distribution points," Jardon said. "We helped over 10,000 families for over 26,500-and-some people throughout the summer."
While membership is open to military veterans and first responders, you can be a volunteer and supporter of the mission.
"This is what Sheep Dog is all about,” Jardon said. “We bring hope to those that have none. And it's very, very powerful when you get to see it.”