By Kathleen Toner
XENIA, Ohio (CNN) — Karen Shirk has spent 15 years matching people with service dogs that can help them with their special needs and disabilities.
With the help of her staff, she puts a lot of thought into the process to make sure each person has the right dog for them.
But one recent story — involving an Afghanistan war veteran and a German shepherd named Gabriel — has her convinced that larger forces are sometimes at work.
It began in March, when Shirk got an e-mail from U.S. Army Sgt. Derek McConnell. McConnell had lost both his legs in an IED explosion, and he was desperate for a service dog while he recovered at Walter Reed Medical Center in Washington.
Shirk knew Gabriel, a dog they were training at the time, would be perfect for him.
“I sent him a picture of Gabriel and said, ‘How would you like this dog?’ ” Shirk said. “He was so excited. … He would text me every day.”
She understood that McConnell was eager for the companionship of a service dog and the independence that it could provide.
“Soldiers, they’re not wanting people to do things for them,” said Shirk, who was honored as a CNN Hero for her work with autistic and special-needs children. “If you have to ask (someone) all the time to pick things up that you drop or ‘Bring me my wheelchair,’ they have to depend on somebody else. … Giving them a service dog is giving them back a means of doing it themselves.”
Shirk and McConnell grew to be friends, and she was struck by his generosity. Although Shirk was going to give him his dog for free, she asks civilians to contribute to help offset their dog’s training costs. So McConnell had started planning ways to help raise money.
Then, one day, Shirk didn’t hear from him.
“I went to his Facebook page, and this first post that I saw said, ‘You were the most wonderful young man,’ ” she said. “And I’m like, “Were?’ “
Shirk was devastated to learn that McConnell had passed away from complications related to his injuries the previous night. But she soon decided that the best way she could honor him was to place Gabriel with another disabled soldier.
She reached out to someone she knew in the military and asked for help.
“I said, ‘Find me another Derek!’” she recalled.
Within days, Lisa Murphy heard about the dog at the Yellow Ribbon Fund, a Maryland-based charity that helps injured service members recover.
“Someone basically made her aware that this group was looking for a soldier amputee to connect with a service dog,” said Lisa’s husband, U.S. Army Capt. Jake Murphy. “I was looking for a dog myself, so Lisa kind of jumped on it.”
Murphy, like McConnell, had lost both his legs in Afghanistan. But Shirk soon discovered that they had much more in common.
She found out they had served in the same unit and been injured on the same day. In fact, McConnell had actually helped with Murphy’s medical evacuation, just hours before suffering his own injuries.
Both had also recovered at Walter Reed and become friendly during therapy together.
Shirk was floored by the coincidence, as she had gotten in touch with both men through completely separate channels.
“It’s like a once-in-a-lifetime story that you hear,” she said. “I just think it was meant to be.”
Murphy recognizes that it’s an unusual coincidence, but he doesn’t think of it in quite the same way.
“If it was fate, then Derek was meant to die, so I don’t really like to think of that,” he said. “But if Derek can’t be here, it’s almost fitting that I get Gabriel as my service dog.
“There’s a connection between him and myself. … Derek will always be in my thoughts.”
Shirk said the episode has renewed her desire to work with veterans.
“Derek and Jake lost their independence, giving independence to others. … Those veterans, that was who I wanted to help,” she said. “I’m hoping more of these wounded soldiers will come to us looking for dogs.
“We are ready. They can all come, and we will help them.”