"This isn't a nicely packaged topic. It's messy and vulnerable.
And for the honest conversations to happen, you have to get a bit uncomfortable. And I'm OK with that."
I stumbled into my calling in 1996 when I enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps after failing my first year of college. After four years of active duty as an infantryman, I re-enlisted in the Marine Corps Ready Reserves while embarking on a new corporate career and returning to school. In 2004 my unit was called to serve in support of operations in Iraq. On Thanksgiving night of that same year, the vehicle I was driving while on patrol was struck by a roadside bomb killing Lcpl Ryan Cantafio and wounding three other Marines, including myself.
Fortunately for me, my unit acted quickly to defend against the ambush and stabilize me so I could be medically evacuated. My injuries resulted in the amputation of my left foot, which would be revised years later to a below-the-knee amputation. I was medically retired from the Marine Corps and discharged from Walter Reed in October of 2005. Unlike my first enlistment, my injury didn’t afford me the choice of whether or not to leave the military. That decision was made for me. One moment I was a Marine in combat, the next I was a statistic laying in a hospital bed. And I was forced to leave with physical wounds I didn’t want to acknowledge and invisible wounds that had yet to make themselves known.
And that's where the story really begins...
I buried myself in work and school to attempt to adapt and overcome, as I was trained to do. But the more I tried to compensate, the worse things got. By 2007 things were seemingly at their lowest as I was going through a divorce, filing for bankruptcy, and ultimately hitting rock bottom. And it was only then that I discovered the huge net that had been ready to catch me the entire time; I just needed to open my eyes and see it. Through a growing support network of family, friends, and veterans organizations, I started to slowly fight my way out of the darkness. It was also during this time that I discovered that my heart and true passion was still with my military family, only in a different format than I was accustomed to.
The past decade has led me through the transition from corporate America to veteran advocacy. Initially it was in the public sector as the Dane County Veteran’s Service Officer, where I received my Veteran Service Officer (VSO) accreditation, which sounds fancy but really just means that I know how to navigate the world of the Office of Veterans Affairs (yes, it can be done successfully). I also chose an emphasis on military transition while completing my Master’s in Social Work degree from USC. Eventually I found my way to the nonprofit world with the Semper Fi Fund, who was instrumental in my recovery and offered me an opportunity to help other veterans successfully find their own path to a successful transition. Encouraged by President George W. Bush, Bill Bishop, founder of Blue Buffalo, and Tom Mccann, founder of Mccann Pets, I stepped out on my own and formed Sierra Delta: Service Dogs For Veterans, with the help of many other veterans and supporters across the US but most notably from the island of Nantucket.
Sierra Delta was formed in 2017 after President Bush told me: "BJ, I can give anyone of these service dog organizations $5 million and it will not move the needle for our veterans." With the support of Blue Buffalo Pet Food Company, Sierra Delta set out to find a way to bring a variety of dog therapies to scale and begin to effectively help 10's of thousands of veterans instead of just the few hundred that are lucky enough to receive these life changing programs. I am proud to report that Sierra Delta has found the way to bring these type therapies to scale ethically, compassionately, with full oversight and complete wrap around services, which did not exist before Sierra Delta was created. We have accomplished this by Empowering the veterans by including them, where possible, in the training of their dog; by providing Purpose in the relationship with their dog by gamifying the continuing education for the dog and the veteran; by utilizing Innovation in the form of technology and program philosophies that put the veteran as the focus, instead of the dog as seen by traditional service dog programs; and finally by creating an engaged and interactive Community of veterans, supporters, and dog lovers. We are not yet to our goal of 10's of thousands of veterans served, but we are the only organization in operation who has the capacity and the experts to deliver these vital programs to ALL veterans who want or need a dog in their life. To learn how you can get involved visit www.SierraDelta.com.
I continue to live by the core values instilled in me by the United States Marine Corps of Honor, Courage, and Commitment. I have added four more core values of Empowerment, Purpose, Innovation, and Community to help me overcome every challenge that life has presented me with, to include Lymphoma in 2018, COVID in 2020, and just the general hustle required to make it in this world; and, I fully believe that if we all strive to live up to these simple core values we all can live an E.P.I.C. Life with Honor, Courage, and Commitment.
Let's connect and see how we can work together to bring more social entrepreneurship to our world!
To see BJ in action go to YouTube and subscribe to his channel "BJ Ganem's Life on the Good Foot" or click here