Though barely old enough to drive, he heeded the call of his country and served in the 82nd Airborne Division. They sent him to Afghanistan, where he lost his leg below the knee from an IED explosion. He was awarded a Purple Heart for his bravery and sacrifice. His fortitude was repeatedly tested during grueling months of rehabilitation.
Instead of giving up, he persevered. He trained, climbed mountains and ran marathons. It’s easy to forget that Matthew White is a decorated combat veteran. But when our photographer asked him to place his foot against the wall during a recent photo shoot, he told us he couldn’t, as he would lose his balance. His life has changed in so many ways we all take for granted.
When our founder, Sande Riesett, saw photos of Matthew with his pit bull dog Nike, she wooed him for the campaign. He stalled, was noncommittal and a bit hard to get, but not out of arrogance or conceit. To the contrary, Matthew is not the kind of guy who likes to draw attention to himself. Yes, he adored his dog, but he could not fathom why anyone would want him for a media campaign.
After wearing him down, Matthew finally agreed to model last May at Pawject Runway. People didn’t know him, as we hadn’t yet photographed him for our campaign. Although many famous celebrities have walked our runway, Matthew White has been the only model who has ever received a standing ovation — and a spontaneous one at that.
Matthew sat down for a photo shoot last fall and his poster had a similarly profound effect on the world at large. Of the 95 models we had photographed up to that point in time, his was the most popular, breaking all records by a wide margin. Matthew’s poster is powerful and speaks to each of us.
Matthew adopted Nike from the Washington Humane Society. It was a classic “who rescued whom” story, as Matthew was dealing with the demons of Afghanistan. Tough guys and combat vets can be notoriously resistant to talk therapy and Nike is proof positive that animals heal us when all else fails.
We’ve witnessed the intense bond our Softies have with their animals and it’s one of the greatest perks of our work. Although each relationship is special, the bond between Matthew and Nike is extraordinary. We witnessed it again last week — it’s The Look.
Photo shoots can be tiring for dogs, but Nike followed Matthew’s every move like a puppy. “What should I do now? How can I make you happy?” she seemed to be asking. Matthew looked back and whispered to her, but Nike knew what was expected even before he spoke. We witnessed a loyalty and bond that does not exist among many couples. Matthew is so committed to Nike that he even turned down free housing in Prince George’s County because of its absurd pit bull ban.
There are other organizations that have paired combat vets with homeless animals. They recognize that PTSD is an almost inescapable problem for those who have served and that animals are often the best medicine. Sometimes, they’re perfect matches, as dogs can suffer similar wounds when their loyalty has been violently exploited.
A picture, however, speaks a thousand words and we hope we inspire others, particularly veterans, to adopt homeless animals. One glance at Matthew and Nike’s photo and people “get it.” They get it immediately. It’s a powerful image that resonates with all of us. Although few of us have fought in wars or endured such hardship, we all have scars, from illness, love lost, disappointment or regret. Matthew and Nike remind us that animals not only heal us; they make us better people.
The 4th Annual Pawject Runway is not only scheduled the same week as Matthew’s graduation from Catholic University, but also the 6th anniversary of the blast that so changed his life, also known as his “Alive Day.” It’s a solemn milestone that Matthew prefers to spend with military friends to both reflect upon his narrow escape from death and remember those who were not so fortunate. Despite all this, Matthew has agreed to walk the runway with a homeless animal from BARCS. It’s a selfless tribute to the healing power of animals.
Join us on May 13th and be prepared to rise to your feet and acknowledge all that’s good and right in this world.
Written by SYSS board member, Caroline Griffin with photography compliments of Virgil Ocampo.