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Wounded veteran's service dog wins national honor

By Veronica Nett

CLARKSBURG, W.Va. -- To Clay Rankin, his dog Archie is more than a friendly companion - he's a hero.

Rankin, a veteran of the U.S. Army, struggles with the aftermath of war every day. His injured back makes it difficult to walk. He experiences disturbing flashbacks. 

Archie, a service dog, has been by the retired sergeant's side for nearly four years, helping him regain his independence and move forward with his life.

During an interview with the Gazette-Mail, Rankin's eyes filled with tears as he looked down at his 8-year-old black Labrador retriever.

"This guy, he's pulled muscles because the only thing he cares about is helping me," Rankin said.

Earlier this month, Archie's unflappable loyalty earned him the Dog of the Year Award from the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. 

The pair plan to travel to New York City on Thursday for the ASPCA Humane Awards Luncheon.

Archie assists Rankin in nearly every aspect of his life, from helping him stand up and get out of bed, to picking up the mail or a dropped cane.
"I've fallen in public and people rush to help," Rankin said. "Maybe I'm a jerk, but most of the time I say no. I get up; it may take me a while, but with Archie, I can do it."

Rankin suffered head and spinal injuries in Iraq that make it difficult to walk, in addition to a shaky sense of balance and limited peripheral vision and depth perception.

"There's a lot of pain," Rankin said. "We go to bed with it and we wake up with it, and Archie takes away from that."

Stocky and very strong, the 70-pound Archie can pull Rankin's 200-pound frame in a wheel chair, and with the use of harness, supports Rankin when he sits or stands up.

"Archie saved my life," he said. "How do you say thank you to somebody that never thinks of himself, and only what you need? And all he asks in return is a little bit of love."

A former police officer and a private investigator in Colorado, Rankin lost his business and his home when he returned from Iraq in 2003.

His transition was difficult. Being in combat can drastically change a person, Rankin said.

"To experience that, every day for a year, or a year and a half, and being expected to be the same person you were when you come back," he said. "You have to learn how to re-engage with people."

People would focus on the injury and "what happened to me," Rankin said.

Archie redirects that focus, he said.

 People quit asking me what happened, and instead ask about Archie," he said. "He became this social bridge."

In 2005, Rankin moved to West Virginia to become an advocate for the Army Wounded Warrior Program. He works with soldiers in each of West Virginia's four VA medical centers.

It's a job Rankin doesn't think he could handle without Archie by his side.

"To be honest, I think they hired Archie," he said. "I just get to hang out with him."

Rankin spends the majority of his time at the Louis A. Johnson VA Medical Center in Clarksburg, where Archie has gained a bit of a "rock star" status.

 "Everybody knows about Archie, don't ask them about Clay Rankin," he joked.

Archie was trained as a service dog by Patriot Paws, a nonprofit organization based in Texas. He also fills the role of a therapy dog to some of the soldiers Rankin visits.

"He provides unconditional acceptance and love to that individual," Rankin said, "and there is nobody that doesn't want and need that in some point in their life."

The physical and emotional pain can be overwhelming for some soldiers, he said.

"What Archie does, is show them that there is life after injury," Rankin said. "We don't have to crawl in a hole and die." 

Rankin received notice about three weeks ago from the ASPCA that Archie had won the Dog of the Year Award.

He had no idea Archie had been nominated, and, to this day, does not know who submitted Archie's name for the award.

"People call him a dog, but he's not. This should not be called Dog of the Year Award, but the Hero of the Year Award," Rankin said. "It's an honor, but it's not me; it's about Archie."

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