US Army Veteran Kent Phyfe and his service dog Iris travel to America’s VetDogs events in their CampLite 5.7 to help raise money for fellow military veterans in need of a guide or service dog.
Although most of us are fortunate enough to not need a service dog, I believe we can all relate to the powerful connection, endless positive energy, love, and intuitive understanding a dog can bring into our lives. In a difficult chapter in my own life, a dog made a very significant difference.
As a US Army veteran, Kent had injuries that precluded him from living a fully independent life. Then Kent contacted America’s VetDogs, a Long Island based 501(c)(3) non-profit organization that provides guide and service dogs as well as custom training at no cost to veterans of all eras. With the help of America’s VetDogs, and an amazing service dog named Iris, Kent has regained his independence, turned his entire outlook around, and found a new mission in life.
Together in their CampLite 5.7 truck camper rig, Kent and Iris now travel to events supporting America’s VetDogs and giving back to fellow veterans in need. Thank you Kent, Iris, and America’s VetDogs for your wonderful work. We have made a donation to America’s VetDogs to aid in your important and heart warming mission.
Above: Kent Phyfe and Iris
TCM: How did you get into truck camping?
Kent: When I retired from the Army in 1996, I wanted a truck camper. I ended up with a fifth wheel because it offered more room for our kids. When my medical issues got worse, I sold the fifth wheel and bought a Class A motorhome. That was easier to drive, but required a lot to keep up. When my youngest turned eighteen, I sold the Class A. That was two years ago.
After selling the motorhome, I was resolved to get a truck camper again. At first, I was going to trade in my Toyota Tacoma, but then I saw a CampLite 5.7 posted on Truck Camper Warehouse’s website. We went up to see the camper in New Hampshire and my wife said it looked perfect. It met our needs, so we bought it.
Above: Camping at the beach with Iris in the CampLite 5.7
TCM: What was it about the CampLite 5.7 that appealed to you?
Kent: With my physical issues, I need to be able to lie down. The CampLite has a sofa and a queen bed where I can stretch out.
The camper doesn’t have a lot of bells and whistles which helps keep the weight and cost down. That was a big plus. Also, the camper is all aluminum and composite making the camper easier to maintain. I can take care of this camper myself. Finally, it gets decent fuel milage with the Tacoma. Overall, the CampLite 5.7 is a good fit for us.
There’s no bathroom in the CampLite 5.7. We have a portable chemical toilet system which is easy to maintain. In my opinion, the chemical toilet is cleaner to maintain than a cassette toilet or a black tank.
Most of the time it’s just me and my service dog, Iris. My wife only comes camping when we go to the beach. When I’m speaking at an event, it’s a place for me to sleep with a queen size bed. It’s all that I need. I’ve been in New York City and Boston and dry camped in the cities on the street for fundraisers. We stayed in the camper and people didn’t even know we were in there. This camper has been the dream of dreams for me.
Above: Iris takes a nap in the CampLite 5.7’s queen-sized bed
TCM: What was it like to go from a Class A motorhome to a truck camper?
Kent: My wife has had issues with the transition. I was in military and, being a grunt, you learn to live and clean up in small spaces. The change has been easy for me.
Above: Iris and Kent were connected through America’s VetDogs
TCM: How did you get involved with America’s VetDogs?
Kent: At one point, with my traumatic brain injury, I was essentially locked in my house and couldn’t drive for eighteen months. During that time, my doctors advised me to get a service dog because I was alone a lot. I was getting depressed and suicidal.
I was living in Connecticut and looked in New England for service dog trainers. The Veteran’s Administration didn’t know where to go so I started doing my own research. When I finally found a source for service dogs, it was $9,000 to apply for a service dog, and an additional $20,000 to purchase the dog. To make matters worse, there was a two year waiting period.
One of the last places I called was America’s VetDogs. Over the phone the lady said that I was qualified. I was crying on the phone I was so happy. I couldn’t believe it.
America’s VetDogs sent me an application for my doctors to fill out. They have never taken a penny from me. I still get chills talking about it two years later because that phone call changed how I felt about me. It was the first good thing happened to me in years.
Above: The rescue became the rescuer
TCM: That’s incredible. How did you actually get your service dog?
Kent: America’s VetDogs asked if I would take a rescue. I preferred it. In less than nine months, I had Iris.
Before getting Iris, America’s VetDogs taught me how to work with her. I got certified and then they sent me home. If I need help at any point, an America’s VetDogs trainer will come out to my house. It’s really an amazing opportunity.
Iris knows how to hit a button to alert people if I have a problem. The fifth night I had Iris, she stopped me from having a seizure. Before my medical issues, I was a very optimistic person. With Iris, I’m back to that now.
The doctors used to say I was terminal. Iris changes the outcome of me having a seizure. Now I can drive again. It’s an amazing story. My wife was ready to leave me and my kids hated me because I was always in a foul mood. Now I have a family again. It’s a complete change. Iris has changed my life. She is sitting here with me as we talk.
Above: The button Iris pushes that calls 911
TCM: So Iris pushes a button to warn you and others that you’re about to have a seizure?
Kent: Yes, Iris was originally trained to react to my seizures. What that means is that if I have an event, she is trained to hit the button that we designed. When she hits the button it will call 911. If we’re in public, she barks, licks my face and tries to draw attention to me. If I’m in a chair, she is trained to hold me in the chair so that I can’t hit hit my head.
One button is attached to land line at the house and it’s good for 3,000 feet from the house. We have another button for the camper. We have to be within cell coverage, so we have to watch where we boondock.
TCM: How many times has Iris hit the button?
Kent: She has hit it twice. I used to be at the VA hospitals five to ten days a month. For the past two years with Iris, I’ve only spent two nights in the hospital.
The doctors have been able to find out what causes the seizures and what stops them. Before, they’d keep me in the hospital trying to recreate the event. Now they know what causes them, so they don’t keep me extra days.
Also, Iris precursors everything and wakes me up. When we were in Smithtown, she changed my awareness and it changed the seizure from happening. I have sensors in my chest and the doctors were able to see that had happened.
Iris is a special dog. As I like to say, “the rescue became the rescuer”.
Above Left: Breinne Travers, a medically retired Army Vet with her VetDog, Middle: Dan Lasko at an America’s VetDogs event, Right: Joe Bowser and Dan Lasko with two vet dogs
TCM: It’s wonderful how Iris has changed your life. When did you get involved with America’s VetDogs?
Kent: I’ve had Iris since the end of August 2011 and was involved with America’s VetDogs nine months before that. Being with America’s VetDogs, I get out and meet people. I am also active with the veteran’s community.
I was angry when I got out of army, but now I have reconnected with the guys and finally have that feeling of family back with them. It’s a whole new world with me. I have a new mission.
With my condition, the doctors won’t let me work, but I can volunteer my time. I’ve helped raise thousands of dollars for America’s VetDogs in the last year alone. I want people to know and realize veterans aren’t lost causes. We can give back to the community. The Guide Dog Foundation the parent organization to America’s VetDogs was created by two veterans who came back from World War II. They’re located on Long Island and are a four star charity.
TCM: Tell us about using your truck camper to attend America’s VetDogs events.
Kent: The first event I attended with my CampLite 5.7 was in Annapolis, Maryland where the midshipmen put on an event for America’s VetDogs that raised $50,000. For that event, I was the photographer for America’s VetDogs.
When I was in Annapolis, a guy came up to me and said that he would pay for most of a camper wrap. It’s amazing how people want to help out. Getting the camper wrapped is a huge part of my giving back to America’s VetDogs. Since I travel with the camper, I want people to ask me about how to help another veteran like me, and how to get a service dog like mine. I want people to see my America’s VetDogs campaign as much as possible. I have a webpage setup that allows people to track my travels and speaking events.
Above: Sean Karpf with Lisa Yambrick. Lisa is on the Board of Benefactors for VetDogs
Since the Annapolis event, I’ve been to New Hampshire, The Carroll Center for the Blind in Boston, south of Portland, Maine to a school, and Strongmen events for Veterans. I was also in Smithtown and in New York City for a VFW event. I do some private fundraisers for companies. If someone calls and asks me to talk about America’s VetDogs, I’ll be there.
Truck camping and being a part of America’s VetDogs is freedom for me. It’s a mission of love. I love camping and love be out of the house. I would rather drive than fly. Having the truck camper allows me to go anywhere. Whenever I need to, I can pull over, park in a normal parking space, lay down and rest.
Above: Kent and Iris out camping in their CampLite 5.7
I get to see the country this way and take photographs. I know I’m not going to live forever and I want to get as many things done on my bucket list as possible. I want to see as much as I possibly can.
One of the best parts of this setup is that Iris and I will be able to ride on most ferries or other toll systems for the price of a regular vehicle. Nothing on my camper hangs over the rear bumper. This makes it much easier for us to get to any and all locations, even remote locations.
Above: Dan, Jennifer, and Luke Lasko with Dan’s service dog
TCM: What is your goal with America’s VetDogs?
Kent: I stated a long time ago that my goal was to raise enough money for a dog a year. It costs about $50,000 from birth to raise and train a dog. I want to exceed that amount every year. I have done it so far.
TCM: How do other veterans become involved with America’s VetDogs or get a service dog of their own?
Kent: There are so many things you can do to get involved, depending on where you’re located. You can call the America’s VetDogs toll free number; 1-866-838-3647 or you can visit their website at www.vetdogs.org. Tell them that you want to get involved and they’ll make sure you talk to someone who can help you. They are the nicest group of people that I’ve had the pleasure of working with. Everything is about the individual.
TCM: Is there anything else you would like to add about America’s VetDogs or truck camping?
Kent: The CampLite is the right camper for me and what I’m doing with America’s VetDogs. I am very happy for that. I’m just glad they make truck campers like this little one. It’s perfect for me.
Truck: 2006 Toyota Tacoma, four wheel drive, gas, extended cab, short bed
Camper: 2012 CampLite 5.7
Tie-downs/Turnbuckles: Torklift Fastguns
Gear: Added hitch to truck with a basket for grill, generator, and cooler