There’s a reason for the freezin’ in Tolstoy. They come together in northern South Dakota, every January, to run or walk a county blacktop. Called the Tolstoy Wind Chiller 5K, it appeals to—we must be honest—unabashedly crazy, well-layered folks. They do it for service dogs, and the veterans who need them. They do it in support of Labs for Liberty.
This non-profit, 100% volunteer organization provides fully trained service dogs to special-ops military veterans. The dogs are gifted, free of charge, to their warriors.
The little 5K had its start over some post-pheasant hunt beers and steak a few years ago. While out for supper, a pair of friends—regular 5K participants—idly wondered if they were up to the challenge of organizing one themselves. They were! After persuading a daughter with amazing graphic skills to join them, the task force was in place. The trio swears the beer that night had nothing to do with designating January as race month.
Naming a fundraising cause was the easiest part. The three have strong love for country and close military ties. Additionally, one of the families was already fostering Labs for Liberty (L4L) dogs.
Positioned at the finish line this year to greet the 2019 5K participants was Oakley, a stocky, brown lab with all-knowing eyes. That’s where the event’s lightheartedness and life-changing sentiment truly collided. Following, is Oakley’s L4L story.
Oakley and Jonathan
Jonathan Baxter, Oakley’s warrior, will tell you that Oakley is his “spirit animal,” phrasing not commonly used by a former U.S. Army Ranger. But Jonathan was searching for a new normal since serving his country in Iraq, during some of its most lethal years.
Now a biologist for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Arkansas, Jonathan had researched service dog options for coping with PTSD challenges. When his L4L application was accepted, something unexpected emerged.
“When I found out I was getting a service dog, I got hope again,” he says. “I didn’t exactly know how it would all unfold, there was still so much to absorb. But for the first time in a long time, just that knowledge was the beginning of being able to look forward again.”
L4L also hosts an annual pheasant hunt, with lodges and landowners vying to host some of this country’s finest. Since Jonathan’s pup was being fostered and trained in South Dakota, and Jonathan is an avid hunter, his hunt invitation also included a meet-up with his future service dog.
The scene that morning of the hunt was mass, furry chaos as 6 or 7 happy L4L dogs frolicked in anticipation of the day’s events. One of the younger chocolates emerged and practically bowled over the slight, southern-accented hunter from Arkansas. Oakley had found his Jonathan.
How did he know his new master? It is why movies are made, books are written, and lifelong memories of childhood dogs are indelible. Science will, in fact, tell you there is chemical connection in dog-to-person interaction. L4L will also tell you they have seen this before, the uncanny, near-instant bonding between veteran and dog.
Then in early February, Jonathan and Oakley went through the week-long pairing process at the Labs for Liberty outpost, in Utah. They are “put to the fire,” learning to use their dog in settings that deliberately trigger the warrior master’s worst anxieties. It is not so much Service Dog 101, more like a 24/7 accelerated learning class.
“It was exhilarating, it was exhausting, and it’s more than I ever thought possible, what Oakley has already brought to my life,” says the Army veteran. Safe spaces are created, disconnection becomes more positively channeled, sleep becomes rest-filled and crowds become manageable again. Family life, in essence, is being given back to this beloved father of three. “Oakley is just plain awesome,” says Jonathan. “I’m in awe of him and the massive effort and support behind each of these dogs.”
And that, as the wind blows and the temperatures plummet, is why they happily run and walk on the Tolstoy Trail, every January—the reason for the freezin’.
Labs for Liberty Mission:
To acknowledge, honor, and empower members of United States Special Operations Forces by providing service dogs for PTSD and physical needs.
- 84 dogs now gifted
- Veterans served in 22+ states
- 100+ volunteers in 6 states
- 100% volunteer organization
It all started July 5, 2014, when Penney was gifted to Sgt. Anthony Norris, U.S. Army. With each pairing, the Labs for Liberty (L4L) family grows. Four years ago, we had no idea the magnitude of change this amazing family would experience. We did not fathom the ripple effects resulting from placing a pup with a veteran: lives saved, marriages healed, and happy children who once again have a mommy or daddy. Extended families were once again made complete, with hope for the future. Veterans who could again return to school and the workforce, who could enjoy aspects of daily life that we take for granted—that they went to war to defend. It is with unbridled anticipation we look forward to the coming years.
—Labs For Liberty
For More Info
Team Wind Chiller and Labs for Liberty represent the extraordinary people and their charitable organizations we meet every day at VistaComm. Visit www.labsforliberty.org and http://sdexcellence.org/Wind_Chiller_5K_Raises_Funds_for_Labs_For_Liberty to learn more about the Wind Chiller 5K, recently named to South Dakota’s Hall of Fame, Champions for Excellence, Acts of Excellence Directory. Thank you, Katie, for sharing your wonderful story with our VistaComm clients.