BENTON — Five years ago, before the arrival of a chocolate Lab named L.T., Phillip D. Sturgeon Jr.'s life was very different.
In 2004, Sturgeon, originally of Vanduser, was stationed near Baghdad as a U.S. Army medic with the 458th Engineer Battalion when a rocket-propelled grenade struck the vehicle he was in. Four in Sturgeon's patrol were killed in the blast, and he suffered broken ribs, facial fractures, serious knee and shoulder injuries and brain trauma. In addition to extensive and ongoing physical therapy required to repair his body, Sturgeon was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder.
"I was just basically learning how to live life over again," said Sturgeon, 35.
It was through reconnecting with an old friend with whom he used to serve, Chris Amacker, that Sturgeon learned about Mission Continues, a St. Louis-based not-for-profit organization dedicated to helping returning war veterans discover new ways of giving back to their communities.
Sturgeon said Mission Continues staff suggested the idea of training support dogs for the disabled, and it struck a chord with him. His father had been confined to a wheelchair, and Sturgeon had also spent some time in the military working with service dogs.
"It had kind of a personal touch," he said.
Through Mission Continues, Sturgeon was awarded a "fellowship" to become a puppy trainer for Support Dogs Inc. of St. Louis, an organization that provides highly trained dogs to the disabled at no cost. Shortly after that, L.T. came along.
When L.T. was first placed with Sturgeon's family, the puppy was 8 weeks old.
"He wouldn't even walk on a leash," Sturgeon said.
Now sleek and muscular at 6 months, L.T. has learned many of the fundamentals he'll need when he is placed with someone who will rely on him to perform tasks such as picking up objects, opening drawers, taking off their shoes and putting their glasses on for them.
Having L.T.'s training to focus on has given Sturgeon something solid to ground him, he said, and has a calming effect on him when the memories of the war in Iraq get too intense.
"L.T. made a huge impact on me personally and on my family," Sturgeon said.
L.T. lives with Sturgeon, his wife, Aleathea Sturgeon, and 15-year-old Seth and 11-year-old Heaven at their Benton home, and goes everywhere his trainer goes, Sturgeon said.
His first trip with the family involved a visit to a Waffle House in Festus, where L.T. wore the special cape that designates him as a support dog, Aleathea Sturgeon said.
The dog has also been featured in television news segments and recently completed a piece with Tom Brokaw of NBC News, scheduled to air in a few weeks.
"He's become the famous L.T.," Aleathea Sturgeon said.
When L.T. returns to Support Dogs Inc. in about a year for the last part of his training, it will be bittersweet for Sturgeon, who said he wants to take on another puppy to raise after L.T.'s time with him is complete.
"It'll be kind of a sad day, but it'll also be a very happy day," he said.
Sturgeon has kept a scrapbook to record photographs and memories of all of L.T.'s milestones, and he intends to pass it along to the dog's eventual new owner.
"It's to let them know what all he went through growing up," Sturgeon said.
Sturgeon said his goal is to open a training school near his home where he can work with potential "puppy raisers" in an effort to increase the number of support dogs that can be made available to those in need.