SEVIERVILLE -- Billy Marshall literally doesn't know what hit him.
An Air Force veteran, Marshall, who specialized in explosive ordnance disposal, was riding in a Humvee in Iraq and had gotten out of the vehicle to inspect a road side.
It was Oct. 16, 1992, his wife Krista's birthday, when the bomb went off.
"To this day, I don't know what it was," he said at the kitchen table of his log cabin home in Sevierville.
He does know that what happened started a week of excruciating pain he managed without any painkillers, that it took him to Saudi Arabia, Germany and finally the U.S., that it resulted in at least eight operations that he can recall and months of rehabilitation.
"At one point (in Iraq) they were going to operate on my hand just using acupuncture," he said. "I went into convulsions, so they called it off."
Purple Heart recipient
He knows that he received a Purple Heart and a Meritorious Service Award, but he lost part of his left arm and leg. Today, he wears prosthetics on both.
But, he has Lucy.
Lucy is a black Labrador retriever he got through Smoky Mountain Service Dogs, a program to supply highly trained dogs to wounded service personnel.
"She is the smartest dog I've ever seen," he said. "She has really changed my life."
Marshall says Lucy was really the first dog trained by the nonprofit company. He explained Smoky Mountain Service Dogs works hard to match the dog with its owner. Although Lucy was trained first -- in fact, she was the "star dog" the program used in demonstrations and appearances -- she wasn't matched up until Marshall came along.
"She was really laid-back, and we hit it off right away," he said.
An incredibly positive person, Marshall had been making it fairly well on his own until one day when the family attended one of Pigeon Forge's dinner theaters.
"They had this huge pig on display," he recalled. "I had never seen a pig that big. I was watching it and not where I was walking."
The sidewalk turned; he didn't. The result was a broken leg -- his good right leg -- only he didn't know it was broken until a year later.
It sent Krista, also an Air Force veteran, to the Internet in search of a service dog.
"She found a place in Texas but was told it would take two years," he said. "But she kept searching and one day she said to me, 'A place called Smoky Mountain Service Dogs just put this up (on the web).' "
The website was exactly what the Marshalls were seeking. Some phone calls, visits, training sessions and such followed, until Lucy was in the house. That was four years ago, and Marshall's life has gotten better.
'She has saved me from falling'
"She has saved me from falling so many times," said Marshall, now 47. "Once, I got my foot stuck on the rug and started to fall. She locked up like a statue and supported my weight."
Even a brief visit with the two shows how inseparable they are.
"She is with me 24/7," he said.
Lucy is incredible. She not only follows numerous commands, but has learned how to anticipate.
Something falls, she picks it up in her mouth and puts it in Marshall's hand. He gets up from a chair and she instinctively knows to come to him, leash in mouth so he can take it without bending.
Their closeness came in handy when Marshall started sensing that something was wrong with Lucy.
He ended up taking her to the University of Tennessee College of Veterinary Medicine, where it was determined she had blood cancer.
The vets were astounded that Marshall had sensed it so early and, because he did, they were able to turn it around. Lucy is in remission.
Krista and Billy have two daughters, Bryana, 20, and MaKenzie, 17. They also have a cat that gets along fine with Lucy.
"I know how having a service dog like Lucy can change your life," Marshall said. "I told the people at Smoky Mountain Service Dogs that if there is anything I can do to help other vets I will do it."
So, Marshall has granted numerous interviews and spoken to groups about the program.
Lucy is always at his side.
Fundraiser for Smoky Mountain Service Dogs
On Sept. 11, Smoky Mountain Service Dogs began a campaign called "More Wags for Warriors" with a goal of raising $500,000 to build a facility in Lenoir City to house 18 dog kennels, a grooming area, training space and administrative offices.
"This new facility will allow us to increase the number of dogs we train and veterans we serve every year by providing adequate space to train, house and care for the dogs," said Mike Kitchens, chairman of Smoky Mountain Service Dogs.
He explained that certifying a service dog takes 1,800 hours of training. At present training has to be done off site at such places as shopping malls and churches. The new facility will allow everything to be done on site.
The fund drive is nearly halfway to its goal thanks to a $225,000 donation from the American Valor Foundation.
For information on how to donate to Smoky Mountain Service Dogs or on the organization itself, visit www.smokymountainservicedogs.org. ___
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