A Lifetime of Caring for Others

This Women's History Month we’re sharing stories of our wonderful women graduates, volunteers, and staff. The story below originally appeared in the Spring 2022 edition of The VetDogs Sentinel, Vol. 13 No. 1, our newsletter. To sign up for The VetDogs Sentinel , please click here.

Kelly Knox’s military career “kind of happened by accident,” she says. Growing up in a family of “modest means” meant that if she wanted to go to college, she would have to find a way to pay for it. The U.S. Army offered her that opportunity.

“I went to undergraduate school on an Army ROTC scholarship,” she says, which required her to serve in the military after graduation. Knox left the Army after 10 years and, using the education benefits of the GI bill, earned her master’s degree in social work. 
The Army did not have a slot for her in her specialty, so she accepted a direct commission in the Air Force and spent the rest of her military career in the Air Force’s Biomedical Sciences Corps as a social worker. She would go on to earn her PhD in healthcare administration. 

During the second half of her military career, Knox served during Operation Desert Shield and was involved primarily with humanitarian missions. She was part of the team that responded to the Oklahoma City bombing. 

“I was stationed at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, and the social worker who was on the rapid deployment team couldn’t respond, so they put me on the team at the last minute,” she recalls. “And I discovered I was good at it. I was good at crisis management, I was good at disaster mental health, post-trauma mental health. It just kind of became my career.” 

It was not, she says, “something I probably would have chosen consciously; it just kind of fell in my lap that way. And I’m grateful that it did because I have had a very meaningful career doing that.” In addition to the Oklahoma
City bombings, Knox was also part of the teams that responded to the Khobar Towers bombings in Saudi Arabia and Operation Pacific Haven, which provided humanitarian support for 7,000 Kurdish refugees in Guam before they were relocated to the United States. 

“I also assisted civilians who were displaced during the conflicts in the Bosnia War,” she says. Over the years, “I was deployed a lot.” 

Knox explains how she was able to help others while separating herself from their experiences: “When you’re talking to somebody about their trauma, you don’t internalize it in the same way because it’s not your trauma,”
she says. “So they’re describing it from a very personal perspective, but we are experiencing it as watching somebody describe their experience.” 

After serving an additional 10 years in the Air Force, Knox retired in 2000, but she continued to serve. She joined the Department of Veterans Affairs as a PTSD specialist and worked for the National Center for PTSD, training other therapists and mental health professionals throughout the country. She was a member of the VA’s rapid deployment teams, which responded to natural disasters such as the hurricanes in Louisiana. “I was able to continue to use my disaster response skills as a civilian for a while, which felt really good,” she says. 

After 20 years at the VA, Knox medically retired from the VA in 2021. 

Putting herself first 
It has been documented that veterans who were deployed in the first Gulf War (Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm) have developed a variety of chronic conditions related to their service in the Persian Gulf, such as fatigue, headaches, joint pain, respiratory disorders, and memory problems. 

In Knox’s case, “I ended up with multiple sclerosis,” she says. This, coupled with a traumatic brain injury she had suffered during her deployment to Bosnia, began to affect her balance and coordination. “I was falling more frequently,” she says. 

Her healthcare providers at the VA suggested that maybe she think about using a walker or a scooter. “I was still in my 50s, and my own feeling about it was a little bit like admitting defeat,” she says. “The longer I can postpone that the better.” 

Knox learned of America’s VetDogs when she saw a video of Sully, the late President George H.W. Bush’s service dog, at his funeral. “The next time I went to see my doctor, we talked about the dog, and I asked if a service dog could help me. He thought it was a really great idea, and that’s when I contacted AVD to find out exactly what a service dog could do for me.” 

She applied to America’s VetDogs after researching other schools. “AVD just met all possible criteria for having the best trained, the healthiest dogs that are bred for this purpose,” Knox says. “And there’s a very generous community behind AVD that raises the money so that veterans who couldn’t otherwise afford a service dog can get one.” 

Knox was teamed with her service dog, Amber, in January 2021. Waiting for their first meeting, “I didn’t really know what to expect,” Knox recalls, but when the black Labrador Retriever entered her room, “I immediately fell in love with her.” 
When the new team was left alone for bonding time, “I dissolved into tears. I felt such relief. I’d waited a long time for this moment. It was a huge, huge relief that this was finally happening.” 

Amber has been trained to help Knox with several different types of tasks. “I was falling a lot before Amber,” she says, “and I’ve only fallen one time in the 14 months that we’ve been together, and that didn’t have anything to do with her. I slipped on the ice.” 
Amber also helps Knox get in and out of chairs and provides counterbalance when she is unsteady on her feet. “I’ve been able to start hiking again, which I was really, really missing,” she says. “[Amber] helps me stay stable when I’m walking on trails and uneven terrain.

And that’s been a big deal. I’m so much healthier now because I’m able to get out and walk with her.” 

In addition to her physical tasks, Amber also provides emotional support. Knox says, “I live alone, and I was afraid of falling and hurting myself and not being able to get help. She’s been trained to push a button that calls 911. I’ve never had to use that, but it provides me with a great deal of reassurance.” 

Renewed joy of life 
Since Knox and Amber became partners, “I can do more things with my friends, and I’m happier,” she says. In addition to hiking and camping with friends, Knox plays guitar and mountain dulcimer, primarily “roots music” – folk, bluegrass, Appalachian — what is often referred to as “Americana music.” 

In the summer, she teaches guitar at a summer music camp for girls and hosts backyard concerts for local musicians. She also writes songs and arranges music for her church. And recently she attended an immersive creative writing workshop as she explores new avenues for creative expression. 

Having Amber “makes it easier to talk to people and make friends,” Knox says. “I’m less socially isolated because people are always interested in Amber. I can’t begin to express how grateful I am for Amber and what AVD has done for me.”