Saving pets and helping vets (VIDEO)

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Posted: Wednesday, September 12, 2012 8:34 am | Updated: 8:51 am, Wed Sep 12, 2012.

Tulsa businessman Rob Wheeler and Broken Arrow Veterinarian Dr. Kevin Long have teamed up to help military personnel in ways most people have probably never thought about.

When a GI is deployed or must enter a medical facility, who does he or she turn to for care of pet dogs and cats? Once a GI returns home and is mustered out of the service, who can help secure that “perfect” pet on a limited budget?

In both cases, GI Wishes, an organization founded on Veterans Day in 2010, stands ready and eager to be of assistance.

Now a recognized 501(c)3 operation, it has recruited a network of “foster parents” to care for dogs and cats while their owners are on active duty or in the hospital, according to Wheeler, its founder and CEO. Each animal automatically becomes a patient of professionals like Long, owner of Good Shepherd Veterinary Hospital, 1720 N. 9th St.

The cost of medical care and food during deployment – normally 12 to 16 months – or extended hospital stays is covered by GI Wishes.

Wheeler emphasized that nobody associated with the organization draws any kind of salary and Long has discounted his fees to a level that basically covers only his out-of-pocket costs.

Should the GI be killed in action, a plan is in place to aid in the permanent adoption of the animal.

“Any veteran – and there are 310,000 of them in Oklahoma – can use us to get a pet. All we need to know is the breed they want, the age they prefer and desired features like being house broken. We work through the Animal Rescue Foundation of Tulsa and others in our network of rescue organizations and community shelters to find the animal that meets their needs,” Wheeler said. GI Wishes even pays for medical care the first full year of ownership.

Because many veterans fall into lower income categories, he said GI Wishes’ fees for this service are $50, or “whatever they can afford to pay.”

Wheeler, who is well known locally as a volunteer in Little League Baseball circles, said he considers working with animals and helping his fellow veterans a calling.

“My first dog followed me home when I was about six years old,” he said. “I guess you could call him a rescue, but then so was I.”

For Long, involvement in the program began as a business decision – his practice was new and he needed to build a patient base. The fact he comes from a strong military family — he was born on an Air Force base, my dad is a retired colonel, and his grandfather served under Patton — made the decision an important one to make.

“In all honesty, this was a gut-check time. My wife and I talked about it and realized we would be caring for a lot of patients on a non-profit basis. But we knew this was something we had to do,” Long said.

“When you see what this program means to veterans and the bond that exists between them and their pets, it is really very special. GI Wishes likes to say ‘your heart will be touched forever.’ I know in my case that’s absolutely true.”

While the operation is focused on meeting the needs of veterans, civilians are not totally shut out of its services. If someone has a pet they would like to put up for adoption, Wheeler will post the animal’s picture and a description on the GI Wishes website. Should a veteran want to adopt the pet, he will work to bring the two parties together.

Wheeler, who owns Robert G. Wheeler Capital Management Co. and the Robert G. Wheeler Agency, said funds to operate GI Wishes come primarily from a grant from the Banfield Charitable Trust, individual contributors and what he digs out of his own wallet. There are 16 dogs in the system currently that are being cared for at an average cost of $160 to $200 a year each.

Signs of growth are on the horizon. Wheeler said he is receiving three to five calls a week from across Oklahoma and from neighboring states inquiring about the organization.

Those who would like information on serving as a foster family for a deploying soldier’s pet, or wish to make a tax-deductible contribution are encouraged to visit GIWishes.org or contact Wheeler at 918-688-2709.

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