Sergeant Samantha Wheeler: “It was the first time I felt like someone cared”

Posted on November 9, 2016

Search the internet for “artillery Fallujah” or visit the Wikipedia page for the Second Battle of Fallujah and the first thing you’ll see is the image shown here. It’s one of the most famous photos of the Iraq War, taken by Sergeant Samantha Wheeler during her first deployment to Fallujah.

“I was a combat photographer for the first MLG [Marine Logistics Group] out of Camp Pendleton, California,” Samantha said. “I was deployed to Al-Taqaddum Air Base [in Fallujah, Iraq] from October 2004 to March 2005. It was during the battle of Fallujah that I took the famous photo of a round coming out of an artillery.”samwheeler

Samantha deployed a second time to Al-Taqaddum, for six months in 2006. Each deployment was a source of significant stress.

“Every day we were mortared,” she recalls. “I’d lay there with the flak jacket, wondering if the next would hit me. One of the living tents were hit close to us once, knocked everything around. It felt like I got punched in the chest. I went outside and puked.”

Al-Taqaddum is a long way from Indianapolis, where Samantha was born, and Kansas, where she grew up and graduated high school in 2001. She went on to Kansas Wesleyan University and—without really intending to—joined the Marine Corps two years later.

“I went to the recruiting office with a friend who was interested and wound up joining myself,” she says. “I felt like the recruiting officer was speaking with my friend, but really talking to me.”

After two stressful deployments, Samantha returned home. She wasn’t physically injured during her time in Fallujah, but signs of post-traumatic stress disorder soon began to manifest themselves.image3 (5)-2

“I knew something wasn’t right,” she recalls. “As time progressed, I wasn’t ever happy, I was angry a lot. It’s progressed a lot. It’s been 10 years, you think you’re okay, but you’re not.”

Samantha, who is married to an active-duty Marine (who, she notes, “has seen so much more”), received a letter from the VA approving her to get a service dog. She put the idea on the back burner until someone pointed her to the Semper Fi Fund, which was able to assist her as part of the Tim & Sandy Day Canine Companions program.

“Out of a shot in the dark, I asked to see if [that someone] could point me in the right direction,” she recalls. “The Semper Fi Fund called me that day and had me fill out papers. Within two weeks, I had a check in my hand to pay for my service dog’s training. It was quick, and it was the first time that I felt like someone cared.”

“I had already paid for Archer before he was born, because I wanted a Husky,” Samantha continues. “The day I received the check was the day I received Archer as a puppy at the airport. As soon as I got him, the Semper Fi Fund covered private lessons for the commands and bonding.”

“I wanted a Siberian Husky—they’re not the typical service dog breed, but I love them. The trainers were completely shocked by how Archer bonded with me. He’s by my side all day long.”

“Archer does pattern interruption,” Samantha explains. “If he knows I’m getting anxious or restless or stressed, he gives me kisses and hugs and gets my attention focused onto him.”wheeler sam dog pic

A stay-at-home mom of two kids, four and six years old, Samantha is grateful for the Fund’s assistance (“It’s amazing what they can do. They didn’t question anything or make me feel like I didn’t deserve it, it was made as easy as possible and stressless.”) and, of course, for Archer’s companionship.

“I really wanted to try the service dog, because I hate taking medicine,” she says. “The dogs just help you out so much. I definitely recommend service dogs to anyone who needs one. Before I was always really on a short leash with my kids. Now that I have Archer, it has really impacted my relationship with my kids. As a family we are so much closer.”

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