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Internet users rally to raise funds for war and service dog memorial

Veteran Matthew Bessler of Powell is pictured with a miniature model of a dog statue. A memorial at the Wyoming Veterans Memorial Park in Cody will feature a dog and handler, modeled off of Sgt. 1st Class Bessler and his military combat/service dog Michael. Veteran Matthew Bessler of Powell is pictured with a miniature model of a dog statue. A memorial at the Wyoming Veterans Memorial Park in Cody will feature a dog and handler, modeled off of Sgt. 1st Class Bessler and his military combat/service dog Michael. Photo courtesy Carol Armstrong

Charity, users donate more than $142,700

Thanks in part to the U.S. Secretary of Energy and a community of internet users, a planned monument in Cody to honor war dogs and their handlers will become a reality.

Last week, Chive Charities — the charitable arm of the entertainment website theCHIVE — helped raise more than $142,700 to create and install a memorial for war and service dogs at the State of Wyoming Veterans Memorial Park in Cody.

The larger-than-life bronze will feature a dog and handler, modeled off of Sgt. 1st Class Matthew Bessler of Powell and his military combat/service dog Michael. The idea for a monument came after “Major Mike” was shot and killed by a bicyclist in rural Powell in October 2015.

“It’s kind of sad what happened, of how we got to that point,” Bessler said of the recent fundraiser, adding, “but it shows to me that people do care, they do care what happens with these dogs that have saved lives and ... they’re compassionate about the goal of, ‘Let’s do this and make sure it’s going to be a wonderful monument and something people will come and look at.’”

Bessler noted the monument will be a tribute to all war and service dogs through the ages.

Chive Charities’ efforts pushed the monument from well short of its fundraising goal to well beyond it.

“I worked on this for about a year,” Buck Wilkerson, a leader of the effort and a Cody veteran, said Friday. “Everybody was totally convinced that there’s no way in hell I could ever get it done; it was all pie in the sky — until I showed them that check I got (Feb. 1 for) $60,000.”

Chive Charities bolstered that initial $60,000 grant by asking theChive.com users to contribute another $50,000 on Thursday, Feb. 9. Thousands of the site’s so-called “Chivers” responded to knock out that goal in a matter of five hours, then donated another $32,000 over the following hours and days.

“I would say nothing but the very best about them,” Wilkerson said of Chive Charities. “They have been extraordinary, and they’re serious about helping in the projects that they’re doing. There’s just no way in the world that they can be considered anything other than outstanding.”

Brian Mercedes, the executive director of Chive Charities, said it was a fairly typical “flash charity campaign” for the nonprofit organization — though he added that the online community’s response “blows us away every time.”

For the first couple years of its existence, “theCHIVE was just kind of funny photos, viral videos, good-looking women,” Mercedes said.

(The site has stuck to those roots; recent headlines include, “Get back in the game with some girls in sports bras (30 Photos)” and “Intense cat desperately needs a croissant (Video).”)

The site took on a new dimension around 2010, when people started asking for help, Mercedes said. TheCHIVE co-founder John Resig began posting links to various causes — such as to help children in need — and Chivers would come through with support.

“This online community was really galvanizing themselves and kind of taking an active role in making the world a little bit better,” Mercedes said. It also sparked a conversation among the site’s leaders, who thought, “Maybe we should start a charity so we can do a little bit more for people.”

Chive Charities got rolling around 2012. Mercedes says it’s mostly focused on rare medical illnesses and veterans, along with first responders.

They pick specific projects based on the need and the impact theCHIVE can make by putting together a story for its site, he said.

“Obviously we have a huge megaphone that can reach millions of people,” Mercedes said of the site, which regularly draws 10 million unique visitors a month. “And what we look for are those stories that are the forgotten causes.”

He described the war and service dog memorial as fitting into that category.

“People have been trying for years to raise these funds, and it’s something that not a lot of people recognize and know about, so we wanted to use that megaphone to shout it out to the world and raise funds,” he said.

Resig’s headline on the story pitching the campaign read, “Today, we step up for the unsung heroes, our nation’s War Dogs.”

The piece noted Mike’s service — from locating more than 2,000 pounds of explosives overseas to helping Sgt. Bessler cope with PTSD back at home — and gave an account of the dog’s death in 2015.

“The man claimed he was attacked by Mike but everybody knew better,” Resig wrote, later adding, “Let’s get this built. And the man who shot Mike, he can ride his bike past this monument everyday.”

(The Park County Sheriff’s Office concluded that the bicyclist had acted in self defense.)

Decorated U.S. Navy SEAL Marcus Luttrell — of “Lone Survivor” fame — also aided the campaign by promoting it on social media and offering to have dinner with Resig and one randomly chosen donor; Luttrell lost a service dog of his own in 2009, when two men shot and killed it.

The monument in Cody will be one of the first of its kind in the United States.

“War dogs don’t get really as much recognition as they need to … even when they come back and they’re adopted by somebody as a service animal, so I think it’s a phenomenal thing, (the) vision that we’re seeing come true,” Bessler said.

Carol Armstrong of Cody was one of the first people to suggest a memorial, coming up with the idea in the wake of Mike’s death.

The initial plan was to just put up a statue of a dog, at an estimated cost of $40,000. But former Texas governor/current energy secretary Rick Perry, who’s been in contact with Bessler over the past couple of years, was insistent that the monument feature both a dog and handler — the full team, recalled Wilkerson. When Wilkerson said that would be too expensive, Perry pledged to help raise the money. It was Perry who helped connect locals with Chive Charities, Wilkerson said.

“He stepped up to the plate really heavy,” Wilkerson said of Perry.

Families on the Frontline also assisted, serving as a go-between for the funds as they pass from Chive Charities to the memorial. Jona Vanata, a leader of the Cody-based nonprofit, has been busy this week, as she’s writing personal thank-you notes to the several thousand people who donated through theCHIVE’s campaign.

The finished monument will include a tiered stone base and a small reflection area with benches, “where people can sit down if they want to and reflect on what they’re looking at, and what it’s all about,” Wilkerson said.

He added that, “I like to think of this memorial as something that can be considered as a hallowed piece of the world, where you can see the sacrifice that’s been made by the dogs over the 6,000 years or so, and the handlers.”

It will be located near memorials for veterans of the Vietnam War and World War II. Bessler said he’d like other veteran dog handlers to get in contact with him so they can be recognized on pavers that will surround the monument.

A dedication is planned in June 2018.

As for the extra funds from the Chive Charities fundraiser, they’ll likely go toward another planned monument at the park — one that will honor the women who’ve served in the U.S. military. Before Chive Charities’ involvement, Wilkerson said he’d raised about $30,000.

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