Actor Wilmer Valderrama was walking through Newark Airport in his early twenties when two uniformed U.S. troops spotted him. They approached the young actor, famous for his comedic role as “Fez” on the hit tv sitcom “That 70s Show,” and thanked him for the laughs. The praise caught Valderrama off guard.
“No, thank you for wearing the uniform,” Valderrama responded. While the moment went by in a blink, Valderrama told American Military News that he simply couldn’t stop thinking about it.
“I couldn’t get that out of my head that they were saying thank you to me when I really want to say thank you to them,” Valderrama said.
“So, I called my agents and I called my teammates and I said, ‘Dude, wouldn’t it be crazy if Fez goes and just freaks them out. Like, I just pop up in Iraq all of the sudden out of nowhere and I’m just doing the accent and people are just laughing. I think that would be kind of cool to go out and visit them,” he continued with a smile. “In less than a month, I was on a plane to different bases around the world. Just making people laugh.”
That small moment sparked a decades-long relationship between Valderrama and U.S. troops. In his latest effort to support the men and women in uniform, Valderrama joined forces with Purina Dog Chow for the first-ever Visible Impact Award.
Created to celebrate the “remarkable impact [post-traumatic stress disorder] service dogs have on veterans’ daily lives,” the Visible Impact Award is part of Dog Chow’s 5th annual Service Dog Salute program.
Valderrama and Dog Chow invite everyone to help choose the first-ever Dog Chow Visible Impact Award winner. Participants can vote by visiting DogChow.com/service. The Grand Prize winner will receive $10,000 cash and the organization that trained the service dog will receive $25,000.
Valderrama told American Military News that he has traveled the world for two decades, visiting active-duty troops in locations like Iraq, Afghanistan, South Korea and Germany. Even though he spoke highly of all efforts to support the troops, Valderrama noted that Dog Chow’s Visible Impact Award and Service Dog Salute stand out because they highlight real solutions that can help struggling veterans.
Valderrama explained that a service dog can be trained on “eight different levels” of response and “how to actually assist” a veteran. He added that witnessing a dog respond to complex scenarios is “unbelievable.”
“I’ve been in the room where everything seems fine, but for an individual, or our friend, or our brother and sister, all of a sudden you start experiencing some kind of anxiety. When you experience anxiety, your body releases a chemical that your dog can smell and that becomes your dog’s command to go into support mode,” Valderrama told American Military News. “At that point, the room seems fine, but the dog turns around, starts jumping on the veterans, starts hugging him and kissing him and licking him and then bringing him down to sit down on the ground to ground him and say ‘We’re in this together.’”
“That to me is magical. The fact that to the naked eye everyone seems fine, but the dog somehow senses that there is a level of anxiety rising in his veteran — I think is something really magical and incredibly life-saving,” he added. “And that’s a very, very important thing to just be aware of. Knowing that this is an option for you and it’s out there.”
The Visible Impact Award finalists are:
- Trigger / Northwest Battle Buddies – helps U.S. Navy Veteran Rebekah by sensing the beginning of a panic attack or when Rebekah is having difficulties “getting back to reality.”
- Raphael / Hero’s Puppy For Life – helps U.S. Air Force Veteran Bernard by performing a “standing hug” – a unique version of compression therapy – to quell anxiety or panic attacks.
- Bjorn / Northwest Battle Buddies – helps U.S. Army Veteran Derek by breaking him away from the spiral of negative thoughts through the art of interruption by demanding to be pet.
- Ivy/ Operation Freedom Paws – helps U.S. Army Veteran Todd with her ability to smell a change in Todd’s body chemistry when the veteran is in a crowded social situation and starts to be hypervigilant, angry or anxious.
- Liberty / Paws for Purple Hearts – helps U.S. Army Veteran Carlos by applying a wide variety of skills to help mitigate Carlos’s PTSD symptoms, such as performing deep pressure therapy by laying her tow front legs and head down on Carlos’s lap when the veteran experiences anxiety.
Valderrama said his love for dogs is part of the reason he got involved in Purina Dog Chow’s Visible Impact Award. The actor described growing up around dogs and witnessing how they become part of a family.
“I’ve seen it first-hand and I’ve seen these dogs performing in real life. I’ve seen them be great companions to veterans. I’ve seen them be great companions to friends. My dog, Marrok, has definitely been there in the loneliness of my times when I am super spent and I am exhausted from working super hard and then I come home to an empty house. But as long as he receives me at the front door, it’s really, it really makes it worth it. He’s part of your family. He is your family,” Valderrama said.
Like a dog to his pack and a soldier to his brothers-in-arms, Valderrama said he has built much of his life around the virtues and values of service, even going so far as to name his dog after Sir Marrok, a bodyguard for King Arthur who, according to legend, was part werewolf.
“I think that everything I architected in my life has the virtues and the values that kind of mirror a lot of being of service, defending against injustice and I think it’s important to also unite community,” Valderrama said. “And one thing I’ve taken from the military community is unity. When you wear that uniform, there’s no color. You’re just one and you wave the same flag together. So that to me is something I really respected and really loved.”
To help support U.S. veterans and their service dogs, visit DogChow.com/service and cast a vote for the Visible Impact Award.