CENTREVILLE — She’s tough and fast-talking and funny. She’s sassy, smart and philosophical. But most of all, she’s a survivor.
For retired U.S. Marine Corps Sgt. Rebecca Fletcher, 32, of Centreville, “Semper Fi” isn’t just a Marine slogan, it’s a way of life. From surviving a horrific accident in Twentynine Palms, Calif., through the quick-thinking help of her fellow Marines, to two years of rehabbing at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, to life as an amputee, Fletcher credits her dogs, too, for helping her find her purpose for living — and thriving.
Fletcher is the founder of Mayhem’s K9 Corps Training Services LLC, named after her first service dog Mayhem. She is an obedience trainer who wants to specialize in training service dogs, and is trying raise money for veterans to get them. The dogs can cost from $15,000 to $30,000.
“I didn’t get into this to create a big business; I got into it to give me purpose,” Fletcher said. “I just want to help people and help myself heal.”
She’s still a for-profit business, but she’s working towards forming a 501(3)(c) so she can train service dogs for veterans. She also has been asked to help shape legislation to benefit amputees and to provide for their service dog needs.
“I made a choice a few years ago,” Fletcher said. “I decided that I had two choices: I could accept that I was disabled and wallow in my misery for the rest of my life, or I could make the best of the situation. And so I did.”
It’s been six challenging years since Fletcher lost her leg in June 2013. Because she lost only one limb, she has navigated bureaucratic red tape to get home modifications. After surgery in May to remove the 6 inches of femur she had left, she has been walking since early September.
“It’s been great,” she said. “For one, there are a lot of things I don’t have issues with now. My phantom limb is actually getting better with the pressure of being in the socket. I’m walking. For the last six years I would have to get somebody to carry a drink for me, carry a cup of coffee out. I’d have a clip to hold my coffee on my belt, but I’d spill it on myself. Just simple stuff. It’s been pretty exciting.
“I don’t own a heel under 5 inches. My doctor doesn’t appreciate it. I don’t wear them as much, but when I dress up, I like to wear a heel,” she said, smiling.
She points out that she is “not a combat-wounded vet,” Fletcher said. She was traumatically injured while in the line of duty, so she is “100 percent-rated disabled, but people automatically assume that wounded veterans’ wounds are service-related. I let people make whatever assumptions they want to make.”
“Whether I lost my leg in combat is irrelevant. I still signed and l still served at a time of war. We do this because somebody has to, and we’re willing to,” Fletcher said.
The Anne Arundel County native worked with dogs in high school and was an equine major in college, but left college to join the Marine Corps and loved it. She would have preferred going all the way up the enlisted ladder, but her injury forced her retirement instead.
“I wasn’t versed in dog training, but when I got injured, I got Mayhem and wanted to train him to be a service dog,” Fletcher said. Adding to her own “common sense knowledge,” she researched, studied experts in dog behavior, and worked alongside Vietnam veteran and legendary service dog trainer Mike Sergeant, and Jim Mathys, also a U.S.A.F. veteran, of K9 Navigator Assistance Dogs.
Unfortunately, Fletcher’s beloved Mayhem developed serious health issues. “Ultimately, I had to make the really hard choice to put him down for his own well-being,” Fletcher said. “I’ve helped a lot of dogs from being euthanized; I’ve not encountered a dog that was as unpredictive and reactive as he was” as his illness advanced.
Amos was donated to her, but he was a bit small for the weight-bearing work she needed him to perform. She picked her third dog Rogue for her strength and characteristics for which she’s been bred.
Rogue is a Dogo Argentino, a breed “created in 1929 by a breeder who wanted a dog who would be fearless when hewent out to hunt big game,” Fletcher said. “They’re protective, loyal and fearless, but as a mastiff, they lounge around, and they need to be touching you all the time.”
Fletcher has trained Rogue and other dogs how to provide deep pressure therapy. “It’s where a dog lays on you to provide pressure in certain areas for relief of pain and anxiety,” Fletcher said. “Medical devices can achieve the same result — like thunder shirts for dogs — but it’s the same concept.”
“Rogue will lay on the amputated area or lay across me when I’m having anxiety and just let me stroke her. If you put a 90-pound dog across your lap and you’re feeling anxiety, you’re not gonna get up,” Fletcher said, laughing. “A lot of people don’t think about it, but it’s a simple task to teach. It’s very beneficial in a lot of ways.”
Fletcher not only trained dogs, they taught her as well. “I learned a lot about myself and about helping people from helping dogs,” she said.
“Dogs started teaching me a lot about myself,” she said. “I’d go out to the kennel and say, ‘Wow, this dog is being a real jerk today.’ Shut that door and go to the next, and find out, ‘This dog is being a jerk, too.’ Then go the next one and wonder, ‘Gosh, what’s wrong with these dogs today?’ Well, what was the common denominator?”
“So I realized that I had anxiety problems, and that a lot of my pain was the result of anxiety. I learned that I had to leave it at the door when I came to work with my dogs,” she said.
“I was a bit of a spitfire (which) made me a good Marine, but I needed to learn to reel it in and be more patient and be a little bit less quick to react, because you can’t be quick to react when you’re trying to teach dogs things,” Fletcher said. “They’re not disobeying for personal reasons. They’re disobeying because they’re afraid, they don’t understand or they’re distracted.”
“I learned to not take it so personal, and learned to move on — and that overflowed to the rest of my life,” she said.
“I will confront people when they park illegally in a handicapped parking spot,” she said. “And I’ve been told that I should have died serving my country, that somebody should run me over and the world would be a better place. By perfect strangers.”
Studying what causes behaviors in dogs, helped Fletcher become more self-aware and more understanding of humans — including those who attack her verbally.
“When people are confronted about doing something wrong, they take it as a personal attack on who they are as a person, and so they then feel the need to project that outward onto everybody else,” Fletcher said.
“Misery loves company, and I did the same thing,” Fletcher said. “I hated myself. I didn’t like the way I looked, I didn’t like that I was disabled, and so I took it personally when somebody parked in a handicapped parking spot. It’s not personal. They just did it because they’re not thinking about anybody but themselves, their problems.”
“What I had to learn was, yeah, I got big problems,” Fletcher said. “My problems might be worse than yours, but I don’t know because your problems are big to you, my problems are big to me. I can’t compare them, but what I can do is empathize and learn to be understanding of it and less quick to take everything so personal. The dogs taught me that.”