Story and photos by Anne Sraders
When it comes to man’s best friend, most owners would do anything to protect their dog. When those dogs are the ones doing the protecting, on the other hand, they need a champion to ensure they can do their job safely.
The Xerox Voytosh Armor Fund is just such an advocate. Founded in 2014 by Dr. Nancy Voytosh, a local veterinarian at Echo Equine and dog enthusiast, the fund’s goal is to provide military and service dogs with custom bulletproof vests.
For centuries, these military and service dogs have been used to support, protect and serve the armed and civil forces. Deployed most recently in Afghanistan, these canines have various jobs including explosives detection, territory exploration, tracking and even directly confronting the enemy.
“The dogs protect our soldiers, and they protect us and our democracy and our freedom,” Voytosh said. “That’s why these dogs get military funerals when they die.”
While the fund has officially been in operation for three years, it was decades in the making.
Voytosh, the daughter of a U.S. Marine, attributes much of her inspiration for the fund to her father. Even before she earned her bachelor’s in biology, masters in animal science and Ivy League veterinary training, Voytosh’s father remained her constant supporter. Voytosh, whose lifelong goal was to become a horse doctor, claimed her father always encouraged her to pursue her aspirations.
“When I got into veterinarian school, my father got the license plate ‘PONYDR,’” Voytosh said. “The man sold his soul for me so that I would be a veterinarian.”
The inspiration for the fund did not come without pain and loss. Voytosh faced the loss of both parents, her uncle, two of her beloved Rottweilers and a horse over the period of just a few months.
“The dogs protect our soldiers, and they protect us and our democracy and our freedom,”
The greatest loss Voytosh endured was her father’s passing. He became sick on Christmas and died on New Year’s. “I still cry and it’s been 10 years,” Voytosh said tearfully.
On the day of her father’s military funeral, Voytosh finally got a new Rottweiler and named her Xerox in memory of her father, who had suggested the name.
“Three months later, my mom got diagnosed with terminal cancer, I closed my practice, I went home and I took care of my mom until she died with that dog at my side,” Voytosh said.
After her mother’s death, Voytosh relied on the comfort and care of Xerox to support her. “I lost my dog, my horse, my uncle, my dad and my mom in nine months,” said Voytosh, tearing up. “[Xerox] was my heart and soul. She saved my life.”
It was this dog’s life-saving impact on Voytosh that got her through some of the hardest times of her life. Yet, Voytosh eventually suffered the loss of Xerox as well.
Just a few months after the death of her beloved dog, Voytosh searched for a way to commemorate the two greatest supporters in her life: her father and Xerox. It was in memory of her father’s military service and the dog that provided so much emotional support that sparked the idea for the Xerox Voytosh Armor Fund. The fund is dedicated to serving both the military and civil forces through the canines that help keep them safe.
“I didn’t think I was going to survive [Xerox’s] death,” Voytosh said. “So, trying to tie in the loss of Xerox to give me something to push my grief, [the fund] gave me something to do.”
With the donations received, Voytosh sets the recurring goal of 10 vests for every $10,000. A vest can cost between $800 and $1,000, so every dollar counts toward reaching the goal.
Voytosh believes customizing the vests is essential to the dogs’ comfort, since regular vests can cause rubbing and sores on the dogs. “In regular vests, they can’t really practice in them,” Voytosh said. “They only wear them when they’re in combat or when they’re doing work. With the custom ones, they can practice. I think it has to change their mentality because all of the sudden they have this heavy vest on them.”
When Voytosh started the fund, vests were not available for each dog due to military budget cuts. This, Voytosh explained, lead to public outcry, which spurred the government to begin providing vests for all military canines. “There was so much public concern for the animals that the government funds became more readily available, and hence my fund may start reaching out to police canines,” Voytosh said.
Aside from the protection that these dogs offer soldiers, there is a deeper need that the dogs fulfill. Voytosh pointed out, “These dogs are their family. The dogs provide protection services, but I also think they provide emotional support. And anybody that knows animals or cares about animals will understand that emotional support.”
Following the loss of family and her beloved dog, Voytosh is even more keenly aware of the emotional support these canines offer. She has resolved to raise awareness. With new films coming out such as “Megan Leavy,” focusing on the bond between a Marine and her canine companion, Voytosh hopes viewers will be inspired to research and dedicate more to protecting these war dogs.
Through avenues like the Xerox Voytosh Armor Fund, the furry front line is better protected and prepared for the countless ways they serve soldiers and servicemen.