“Service before self.”
That saying has been ingrained in Ernesto Hernandez’s mind since his first day at the United States Air Force. A saying he never thought would someday mean he wouldn’t be returning home. Hernandez spoke with Sports & Service to discuss his Purple Heart, the Wounded Paw Project, and more.
This story has been edited for clarity.
Can you tell me the story behind your Purple Heart?
So, I'm prior enlisted, I enlisted in the Air Force before I became an officer. I wanted to serve our country, and I was lucky enough to enter the Air Force Academy as an enlisted member. And the reason I'm bringing it up is that I think every [military] institution teaches us and ingrained in us over and over, “service before self.” Over the four years at the Academy. When I finally got commissioned, I started in acquisitions and I had a very, very colorful career doing some really interesting stuff until my retirement.
On this particular day (March 26, 2008), I'm in the Green Zone working with an organization called National Multinational Security Transition Command - Iraq (MNSTC-I). We’d been getting shelled by rockets and mortars quite a bit in the weeks/months prior with numerous casualties. In the wee hours on a Sunday morning, we were walking back to our hoochs, where we slept basically. And when we got there, we noticed that there were these three large canvas tents right by our hoochs. We billeted in these conexes converted to sleeping quarters; two people to a room and we didn't have any T-walls (T-walls were concrete barriers that should protect from the blast radius or the byproducts from rockets or mortars). Again, we noticed these big canvas tents as we were coming back and when we looked in there, there were a bunch of women. We explained to them next to their tent, there was a makeshift concrete bunker. If they heard the Counter-Rocket, Artillery, Mortar (C-RAM) loud voice that a direct hit is imminent and run in there, it’ll protect them from shrapnel and stuff like that.
Somewhere around 5: 40 in the morning and we hear the early warning system go off (C-RAM). Here we go again, incoming fire and we're getting shelled. And this time, you hear screaming, we're getting hit, people are getting injured, you name it, just chaos. Pete (my friend) and I looked at each other and we started grabbing people and throwing them into the bunker. We were able to throw on our flak vests at the last minute, so we were grabbing soldiers and just throwing them in there. Our whole goal was to get as many or all into the bunker, which I think we did. But then that bunker got so filled, there's no room for us and then the openings on both ends were exposed. [Pete and I] looked at each other and said, “All right, all this they teach us about ‘service before self’, here it is,” and we made peace to cross to the other side.
We both thought we're gonna die. Regardless, we were going to shield the openings, I think I was on the north end. Pete was in the south end of the bunker and we just used our bodies to shield it. And I said, “we protect as much as we can of our back” because we did have vests. I kept feeling warmth and pinches — later on, I found out those pinches were shrapnel. Everything slowed down so much. It seemed forever, but it was just a blink of an eye. That's how I earned my Purple Heart, by using my body to protect so others may live.
How did the Wounded Paw Project get started?
That got started years after I was injured in Iraq and survivor’s remorse. 10 days after I was hit by rockets and mortar shrapnel, I switched schedules with my boss at the very last minute, and he was killed where I should have been. So I came back with guilt, but unfortunately, my invisible wounds were starting to take effect. I have a Pitbull named Daisy who is still around and just saw something wrong with me. At the time, the Air Force didn't know what to do with the wounded airman and all they did was pump me with opioids. And, of course, I turned to alcohol, anger, and punching walls. The reason being, I was just in so much pain. I couldn't walk, my back had a piece of shrapnel that nobody really wanted to touch because there was a concern about being paralyzed, and Daisy, on her own, recognized that I wasn't the same person as when I left. She started really coddling me. She would help me get out of bed. She would use tug toys on her own without training. So I started looking into service dogs and what it took and we started the Wounded Paw Project. We started taking rescue and shelter dogs and putting them through training to be service dogs for service members, and then expanded that to anybody who needed assistance with a service dog.
Now our main focus is being the “Voice for the Voiceless. We're known nationwide for our anti-dog-fighting campaigns and what we do to combat this disease. As I stated previously, I had unique military experience and training. I did counternarcotics at the height of the cartel and had a very deep understanding of the underground dark world. I use that skill set and we aid in exposing and ending dog fighting. There's a huge criminal element within the dog fighting arena — they steal dogs and take dogs from shelters to become bait dogs. Realizing the number of Pitbulls in shelters and there are so many dogs in shelters. It’s estimated there are almost four million dogs in shelters every year, and half of those are euthanized, with Pitbull making up 60 percent. We're trying to get legislation to change that and we're trying to really get the word out there to learn about WWP and change shelters’ mission which will take years, unfortunately, many dogs [cats] are going to be killed or they live their whole lives in a cell. In 2023 we are going to push elected officials to include animal welfare as part of their agenda.
That’s what the Wounded Paw Project is really about. Our mission statement used to be, “Saving a Paw to Save a Life”. We're now more of giving rescue and shelters a second chance in life. What that means is a dog could be a perfect house pet, it could be a service dog, it could be a working dog in counternarcotics, or a bomb-sniffing dog. Our three core competencies, we use the acronym PAW — it stands for protect, advocacy, and Wagployment® (the core part that's giving them a second chance in life).
The dogs you rescue, is it specific to “window dogs” or do you also take in retired service dogs?
We're not a rescue, but we work with many different organizations and try to establish coalitions because, unfortunately, we can't do it all. But there are people out there that want to adopt dogs and they have the knowledge and backgrounds. So, the answer is yes, maybe not directly, but we point people in the right direction. We're kind of the conduit. A lot of people come to us because I'm very connected in the Veterans Affairs and the veterans' community space, and I just happen to speak dog. I'm not a dog trainer. I was never a dog handler or anything like that in the military. I can take almost any dog that has been abused and work with it, and make it into a beautiful story. I mean, I have some dogs that had horrible, horrible stories behind them and now living a life that they should have had. So while we can't take every dog, we will connect people if they wanted a specific kind of rescue or whatever the case may be. We have a really cool park that we’re about to team up with in Northern Virginia at Lake Occoquan Regional Park. It's just a phenomenal place. We're going to do dog training there and showcase rescue and shelter dogs up for adoption. So, come 2023, we've got some really neat stuff coming up.
We're fortunate enough that where we live, we are on almost six acres. My son lives on another big property so we share the dogs between those two properties. The WPP mission is my calling and soon we are building a huge garage and we're going to put 13 kennels in there for the hard cases, like terminally ill dogs. These dogs, they're on the last legs of life and we just want to give their end of life the best sending to the “rainbow bridge” we can ever. We noticed that older and terminally ill dogs are left behind or euthanized and we don't want to do that. We just want to give them a decent sending.
What sort of impact have you seen through all the work you’ve done?
I think really it's the bond between the human and the dog. A dog will never judge you. It doesn't, it has no opinion of you. All it wants to do is be loved. So when you find a person that's broken and a dog that's broken, it's the most beautiful bond ever.
When I was going through my therapy, I was embarrassed, which is another story. There's always this cloud above you, but with Daisy and Rosie (my other dog), and all these other dogs, they never judge. They didn't care what was going on in my head. They were just giving me a break from my own worst person – ME. So it’s all just about allowing a person to feel human again, start decompressing, and fitting back into society with minimal reservations. Daisy saved me for me and now I have a purpose till I cross the rainbow bridge. She's given me so much purpose to help out dogs such as herself and give them a second purpose in life.
When you went through the Air Force Academy, you played on the rugby team. How did you get into that?
I was a wrestler and my coach, and I had a difference of opinion on which weight class he wanted me to wrestle at, which was 185 [pounds] and I'm not a 185 person. I'm more like 200 to 220. [Coach] wanted me to cut weight, but I just wasn't fast enough. I was strong enough, but I wasn’t fast enough. In rugby, I saw camaraderie as with any collegiate sport. Rugby, you know, they call it disciplined violence, and the extra pounds were welcomed in the scrum. It's a tough sport, but there’s camaraderie as I mentioned and it just fits me perfectly, especially my personality.
How do you think rugby translated into your military service?
When I played rugby, I was the number eight man, so I had the most unpleasant position of anyone with two huge quarters on both ears. It's kind of like the quarterback and the linebacker blended. Rugby is made up of 15 players with eight players in the scrum down there, you must work as a unit. You must be synced together. You depend on that person to do the right thing, to get low, and to push harder than the opposing team. It’s no different in the military. You have to depend on each other's work to be a well-lubricated machine that works in unison to accomplish your mission. When I played rugby, my mission was to win, to score more than the opposing team, and in the military, [my mission] was to come home alive while defeating the opponent in defense our of country and way of life.
Photo credits: Courtesy of Ernesto Hernandez, Wounded Paw Project’s Instagram