By Corey Van’t Haaff
Photographs by Anthony Tortoriello
Then Sergeant Faith came to see him. She walked in, upright and proud, and in that moment, everything changed. Sergeant Faith, a mixed-breed dog, was also missing two legs, yet was walking just as a human walks, on two strong back legs. Missing limbs were not holding her back.
“I know he was absolutely moved,” said Jude Stringfellow, Faith’s owner. “He said ‘I know if a dog can do it, I can do it.’”
Frankie continued with his rehabilitation and received two artificial limbs. Before he left Walter Reed, he called Stringfellow on the phone.
“He said, ‘I’m walking out of the hospital, put Faith on the phone.’”
There are other soldiers with similar stories of Faith. Greg, a 19-year-old, had also lost his legs while in Iraq. He met Faith just after his amputation and, said Stringfellow; the dog helped him in his recovery.
“People like to talk to Faith,” said Stringfellow. “It teaches them they’re going to be okay. It brings a smile to their face.”
Jude Stringfellow’s first glimpse of Faith was as a squirming ball of something under her son Reuben’s jersey. Reuben had gone to help a friend bury a litter of puppies that had died nearby in their Oklahoma City neighbourhood, but it turned out that one pup was still alive. The boy couldn’t turn his back on what he saw: a puppy with two big, pleading eyes, two floppy ears, and only two working legs. One front leg was missing completely and the other was misplaced and deformed, ultimately atrophying and being removed while she was still a pup.
Stringfellow, a struggling single mom of three, already had a family dog and surely didn’t want another dog to care for and feed.
“Having another dog was out of the question,” said Stringfellow. But when her son asked, “Can we fix her?” Stringfellow changed her mind, though she “didn’t think she would live through the night. The vet said it didn’t look good.”
But Faith did live through the night. Following veterinary advice, Stringfellow propped little Faith up with pillows to get her off her chest. With constant encouragement, Faith started to develop strength in her back limbs and started moving.
“We put peanut better on the end of a spoon and held it above nose level,” she said. “She’d try to lick it and fall over, like any other toddler. Eventually her back legs became strong enough to sit up like a squirrel then her belly muscles became stronger so she could sit straight up. That took about three weeks.”
One day, the family took Faith out outside, where there was deep snow. To their utter amazement, she started hopping. The family went wild with excitement.
“She kept doing it over again,” said Stringfellow. “Then we watched her hop in the house. She’d hop over shoes and pillows. She’d hop from the floor to the couch.”
As surprised as she was, Stringfellow said she saw from the first moment the determination, intelligence, and ambition in Faith’s eyes.
“I’d watch her play with the other dogs and she didn’t care that she didn’t have legs. They didn’t care either.”
But hopping wasn’t to be Faith’s preferred mode of mobility. Reuben’s birthday was coming up and Stringfellow didn’t have money for a present. Faith provided one—she started to walk.
“She walked upright like a human,” she said. Stringfellow called a local TV station and by that evening, the story of Faith’s walking was being disseminated by the Associated Press.
Stringfellow said Faith has a profound affect on everyone she meets. Three years after the dog came to live with her, Stringfellow started doing motivational talks throughout the country, with Faith as proof that anything was possible.
It was at Fort Lewis, an army base near Seattle, while visiting soldiers stationed there, that Faith became an honourary sergeant for the day. But as she continued to do her military work, everyone continued to refer to her as Sergeant Faith. A general told Stringfellow that was just fine, because once you’re in the army, you’ll always be in the army.
Of course, it isn’t just soldiers who benefit from Faith’s message of hope and determination. A 13-year-old girl in Panama City who was in a wheelchair played hooky from school to meet Faith about two years ago.
“She spent all day with Faith,” said Stringfellow. “She felt important and needed and hadn’t felt that way in a while. She learned that being handicapped doesn’t stop you from doing what’s needed. She became a spokesperson for handicapped kids in her area and ultimately ran for school council and won.”
As much inspiration as Faith has brought to the strangers she has met, this amazing dog saved her best work for home. Stringfellow explained that just prior to Faith’s arrival, her family had endured the awful after-effects of a messy divorce, including a five-year custody battle. She was only working part-time as a teacher and was not receiving any child support for her kids, then aged 17, 13, and 12.
“Before we got her, we were looking and acting like a hand without a thumb. We were working independently. I couldn’t make anyone do anything,” said Stringfellow. Once Faith arrived, the family had to work collectively to make sure Faith got everything she needed.
“Faith is like a thumb—she forced us to be a family.”Update: Shortly after Christmas, Jude was contacted by a pet rescue organization that had received a litter of pups—including one little guy with only two legs. Tanker, as he is now named, came to live with Jude and her family. Jude plans to love him, hug him, squeeze him, train him, spoil him, and put him in the same category as Faith—a natural dog with a purpose. Like Faith, Tanker will travel around the world making soldiers (and others) smile, teaching that if a dog can do it, you can do it, too.