Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage on

Is it fate? Dog links two wounded vets

By Kathleen Toner, CNN
June 27, 2013 -- Updated 2040 GMT (0440 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Karen Shirk, a 2008 CNN Hero, finds service dogs for people in need
  • She had a dog ready for disabled war veteran Derek McConnell, but he died in March
  • The dog ended up with another veteran, Jake Murphy
  • Unbeknownst to Shirk, the two veterans knew each other and served together

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.

Derek McConnell was \
Derek McConnell was "so excited" to get a service dog, Karen Shirk said, but he died in March.

"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.

Karen Shirk, pictured here with Gabriel, matches service dogs and people through her nonprofit, 4 Paws for Ability.
Karen Shirk, pictured here with Gabriel, matches service dogs and people through her nonprofit, 4 Paws for Ability.

"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."

Do you know a hero? Nominations are open for 2013 CNN Heroes

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
December 2, 2013 -- Updated 0303 GMT (1103 HKT)
Chad Pregracke, who has dedicated his life to cleaning the Mississippi River and other U.S. waterways, is the 2013 CNN Hero of the Year.
December 2, 2013 -- Updated 0256 GMT (1056 HKT)
CNN Hero of the Year Chad Pregracke pledged to give $10,000 of his winnings to each of the other top 10 Heroes.
December 2, 2013 -- Updated 1425 GMT (2225 HKT)
Celebrities joined CNN in New York to honor this year's top 10 Heroes.
October 10, 2013 -- Updated 1250 GMT (2050 HKT)
They clean up rivers, build homes for disabled veterans and bring health care to some of the darkest parts of the world.
October 16, 2013 -- Updated 2134 GMT (0534 HKT)
It was supposed to be a routine patrol in Iraq. But when the Humvee he was in veered slightly off the road, Dale Beatty's life changed forever.
November 3, 2013 -- Updated 2346 GMT (0746 HKT)
Dr. George Bwelle travels through Cameroon's jungles to provide free medical care for thousands.
October 21, 2013 -- Updated 1325 GMT (2125 HKT)
Many Americans lack easy access to fresh, healthy food. That isn't acceptable to Robin Emmons.
October 28, 2013 -- Updated 1320 GMT (2120 HKT)
Foster children don't often get the things that other children do, but one group is trying to help change that.
November 6, 2013 -- Updated 2325 GMT (0725 HKT)
For many people, the violence in Camden, New Jersey, can make it feel more like a war zone than an American city.
November 13, 2013 -- Updated 2144 GMT (0544 HKT)
For many children fighting cancer, it can be extremely tough to make their chemotherapy appointments.
November 11, 2013 -- Updated 0047 GMT (0847 HKT)
When Kakenya Ntaiya was 14, she negotiated a deal with her father: I'll endure female circumcision if you let me finish high school.
November 18, 2013 -- Updated 1600 GMT (0000 HKT)
Chad Pregracke has made it his life's mission to clean up the Mississippi River and other U.S. waterways.
November 1, 2013 -- Updated 1941 GMT (0341 HKT)
Estella Pyfrom noticed that fewer students had access to a computer after school. So she bought a bus and brought technology to the kids.
October 13, 2013 -- Updated 2339 GMT (0739 HKT)
In many countries, mothers are dying during childbirth -- not because they lack skilled doctors, but because they lack reliable electricity.
ADVERTISEMENT