Unconditional love took on a whole new meaning

  • Friday, February 28, 2014

CPL Burgess and Brinks speak the love language learned in training.


Hearts that Care

His true love lies close to his side at night, waiting. Waiting to save his life. Like the times before when he stopped breathing.

Because of a host of persistent physical problems, 41-year-old Iraq War Veteran CPL Matthew Burgess’s breathing stops up to 16 times per minute.

And, right there, intensely aware of his every breath, is Brinks.

The language of love

February is a time to celebrate love. Naturally, we all want to believe that our love for another is unconditional, but, is it?

“No demands. No expectations.”

“Affection with no limitations.”

However defined, most experts agree unconditional love is “a love that knows no bounds” and is the most perfect kind of love.

Is it possible to feel unconditional love for something other than a human? Like one’s country? Or a pet?

After meeting Matt Burgess and Brinks, I can assure you, it is.

At the age of 21, uncertain of his direction after 2 years of college, Matt Burgess joined the United States Army, believing that by becoming a member of the military family he would benefit like his father and brothers before him.

He loved his country and felt the call.

After basic training, his unit was deployed to the war-torn country of Bosnia. Known as the most devastating conflict in Europe since the end of World War II, the Bosnian War ended in 1995, but not after over 2.2 million people were displaced and crimes against thousands of women and girls were perpetrated.

It was supposed to be a peacekeeping mission; however, the troops experienced the worst of the war’s aftermath and, in Matt’s case, nightmares were recurrent even after returning home.

Discharged in 1997, E-4/CPL Matt Burgess felt great pride for his service even though his memories were vivid reminders of human tragedy.

9/11 and another call to duty

After settling back in Atlanta, Burgess married and went to work. Until September 11, 2001. That’s when everything changed.

Once again, Burgess felt the valiant call to duty. His self-sacrifice led him to the National Guard and by 2002 he was in military school, graduated 2nd in his class, and became a Military Police Officer.

While preparing for deployment, he received the required anthrax vaccine. Not long after arriving at Camp Bucca in Southern Iraq, Burgess fell ill, suffering from violent headaches, severe knee pain and nausea. As team leader of his unit, however, he had no time to dwell on his symptoms, minimizing them as much as possible.

He was, indeed, a brave soldier. And he loved his country. Unconditionally.

But his symptoms persisted, becoming hard to disguise. His platoon leader sensed the extent of his illness and ordered him to a field hospital. Burgess was loaded onto a Medevac helicopter and flown home.

Another kind of battle

The 3-year-long medical battle that ensued was not the battle for which Burgess had trained; however, it became a battle to save his own life.

He was diagnosed with complex symptoms and was taking 21 different medications. The Army knew he was severely affected but was unable to identify the cause or willing to accept responsibility.

“The Army tells you that you are family. You believe them. But then you find out otherwise,” says Burgess

At the same time Burgess lost his health, he lost his home, and ultimately, his marriage. This battle had finally gotten the best of him.

And then, the worst kind of betrayal.

In an effort to determine the exact cause of his illness, Burgess was admitted to Walter Reed Army Medical Center in 2004. The battery of tests included a sleep study. A medical technician working for a contractor there, with previous complaints lodged against him, sexually violated the drugged soldier during the study.

The scars of Burgess’s battle deepened. “I had already lost my health because of the anthrax vaccine, and this on top of it,” he said.

Eventually, the technician pled guilty to 2nd degree sexual abuse. As for Burgess, he was left with the emotional side effects and the increasingly severe symptoms of an illness that now included 18 diagnosed conditions. At last, the illness was determined by the Army to have been caused by the anthrax vaccine.

Burgess received a medical discharge and ultimately the gift of life.

A love that knows no bounds

Burgess met Brinks 2 ˝ years ago when he stopped by an animal shelter near home and adopted an 8-week old, fluffy mixed breed.

A typical puppy, Brinks immediately set out to destroy his new environment. Enrolled in school, Burgess found it nearly impossible to study at home with Brinks constantly interrupting, chewing his shoe laces for attention.

But, the love between them grew as did Burgess’s medical needs.

It was only after relentless self-advocacy that Burgess got the medical attention he deserved. Through a great deal of research, he learned of programs to train service dogs for Disabled Veterans.

Burgess and Brinks found their way to Canine Angels, a non-profit located in North Myrtle Beach dedicated to providing rescue dogs with the proper canine behavior training to serve disabled veterans.

Rick Kaplan, the founder and president, has been training working service dogs for people with disabilities for more than 20 years and has perfected his unique methods. Brinks, a rescue dog, fit Rick’s program and he and Burgess began intense training late last fall. “The training is not so much about the dog,” said Burgess, “but more about training the human.”

Through training, Burgess learned to understand the psychology of canine behavior. Brinks learned focus, discipline, and structure.

He also learned to save Burgess’s life.

And that is when unconditional love took on a whole new meaning for CPL Matt Burgess and his service dog, Brinks.

“Affection with no limitations.”

To learn more about Rick Kaplan’s Canine Angels, visit www.canineangelsservicedogs.org. For more information on Disabled Veterans programs, contact Grand Strand Homewatch CareGivers at 843-299-0291.

Column submitted by Cindy McLaughlin for Grand Strand Homewatch CareGivers, 3577 Highway 17 Business, Murrells Inlet, SC 29576, 843-299-0291.

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