Veteran with brain injury faces steep bills after his dog was shot

CLACKAMAS COUNTY, Ore. - Be prepared to have your heart broken.

Luke Hunt is an Army veteran who suffered a traumatic brain injury while fighting in Afghanistan in 2010.

He's divorced, he's unemployed and he doesn't have a car.

The one thing he does have is his dog, Pepper.

Earlier this week, somebody shot Pepper. Now Hunt faces a choice: Come up with thousands of dollars to fix Pepper's leg, or have the leg amputated.

"It's weird to say this and I know my family understands this when I say this but she can't talk back, and she just lays there and listens to me," Hunt said. "I have more conversations with the things that I struggle with. Any nightmares I have, I wake up to her. She knows when I'm having a nightmare - I open my eyes and she's licking my face."

Hunt was a medic in the 101st Airborne Division when it was involved in a nearly 20-hour firefight in Kunar Province in June 2010. He said a friendly-fire bomb was mistakenly dropped about 25 feet away, leaving him with injuries he didn't immediately recognize.

Once he got back to safety, he found himself frequently lost, confused, disoriented and unable to remember conversations he'd had just few minutes before.

"The traumatic brain injury is the one I deal with the most," he said. "But I maintained in country for the rest of my deployment because I did the same thing every single day, all day.

"I didn't start seeing those issues until I got back. Until there was more than just a horn blowing telling you when to eat breakfast lunch and dinner."

Life got worse for Hunt when he got home.

He had won two medals and a Purple Heart, but the losses kept mounting.

Heat or stress can cause him to black out. Divorce ruined his credit. His car was repossessed because he couldn't remember to make the payments.

Formerly an eloquent speaker, there are now gaps in his speech while he searches for the right words.

"It's hard," said his father Don Hunt, who is also a former medic. "He's not the same. It's the hardest thing I've ever had to deal with. He was fine before - sharp as a tack. Smartest kid I ever met."

Along came Pepper, a German short-haired pointer trained to make Luke's life better.

"He starts having problems and you can tell - but the way I tell is her," he said. She's up in his lap, licking his neck, kissing him. It's amazing.

"You can tell that something's bothering him and 10 minutes with her and he's back to normal."

Earlier this week, Luke walked outside to find Pepper on the ground bleeding.

"She came down from where she was shot and then as soon as she saw me she just laid down because she knew that I would take care of her," he said.

Don and Luke took Pepper to the veterinarian. The news was mixed. The gunshot wouldn't kill Pepper, but the surgery to repair her leg would cost as much as $7,000.

Steve Petersen, the staff surgeon at VCA Northwest Veterinary Specialists, said Pepper was lucky the bullet didn't hit her in a more vulnerable spot.

He also said Hunt is lucky to have Pepper around. If Luke is distressed or blacks out, Pepper immediately jumps to his side or grabs another family member for help.

"Dogs are very unique in that their goal in life is to be a companion for their owner," Petersen said. "And they will go through an amazing amount of pain and discomfort to achieve that.

"As you guys saw Pepper in her cage there, she's relatively oblivious to what's going on. She's just happy he's here, happy to see him, happy to be around. They're able to withstand a huge amount of discomfort to fulfill their obligation to their companion."

Luke wants his dog healthy, and whoever shot her behind bars.

A friend has set up a fund for donations to help cover vet costs.

If you have any information on who shot Pepper, call the Clackamas County Sheriff's Office.

"There's people that are just so cruel and emotionless and devoid of all things that make people that would do something like this to a dog," Luke said. "It's just hard to deal with. If anything happened to this dog I don't know what I'd do."