It’s not uncommon for Johnny Martinez to wake up fatigued, sore, and a bit out of sorts—chemotherapy pills take their toll. Yet, no matter how he’s feeling, every Tuesday morning he gets up, gets dressed and drives 15 minutes to Asheville to volunteer for Warrior Canine Connection’s (WCC) Mission Based Trauma Recovery (MBTR) training program.
“I’m not the type to sit at home and feel sorry for myself,” says Johnny. “I go there with a good attitude. And on the days I don’t go there with a good attitude, when I leave there, it’s a different story … it keeps me going.”
Johnny, an Army Veteran who served as a combat engineer during the Vietnam War, was diagnosed with cancer in 2005 from exposure to Agent Orange. He underwent radiation, which helped shrink his tumors. That is, until 2018, when he was diagnosed with stage 4 liver cancer. At the time, doctors estimated he had a year to a year and a half to live.
“I was always into muscle cars, and I never had a Porsche, so I thought I’d do that,” said Johnny. As Johnny explains it, the Porsche was a “bucket list” item. Right after the purchase, he drove it to Florida to visit his kids. Upon his return, his doctor informed him his tumors were shrinking, to which Johnny says he replied, “Oh no, now I have to pay that thing off!” He added, “God’s probably just not ready for me yet.”
It wasn’t long after his road trip that Johnny applied for a service dog through a different organization. After waiting more than two years without word, in 2022, he reached out to WCC. He spoke to Rick Yount, WCC’s executive director and founder, to inquire how he could get involved with WCC at its Asheville location. After their phone conversation, Johnny hung up, filled out a volunteer application and has since volunteered close to 100 hours.
“I like doing things that benefit Veterans—volunteering at WCC is the best thing I’ve ever done,” said Johnny. “I can’t even express it fully in words … it makes me so happy and satisfied; the dogs are marvelous and it’s amazing how they make you feel.”
Amy Guidash, WCC program director and service dog training instructor at WCC’s program in Asheville, says Johnny is the kind of volunteer that nonprofits like WCC dream of having on board.
“He’s a great guy, and we love working with him,” said Amy. “There are countless nice things to say about him … he’s kind, warm-hearted, thoughtful and has really taken to what we’re doing here, and he just wants to help us with the program. Johnny comes to one of our open groups where a lot of people come on a regular basis. He’s there to support the dogs and socialize with fellow Veterans, he’s just an open, inviting person all around.”
Johnny is no stranger to helping others, especially fellow Veterans. Years prior to getting involved with WCC, he helped start a Veterans ministry at the VA. Every month and on holidays, he and fellow volunteers would visit Veterans in area nursing homes.
He also previously volunteered his time doing ministry work with Veterans in VA Hospice. He says it was incredibly meaningful work being there for other Veterans and to help them go out on their own terms by being able to talk about anything. Unfortunately, the COVID-19 pandemic halted those visits in 2020.
From 2018-2021, Johnny stayed on his chemotherapy pills, which slowed the growth of his cancer. It wasn’t until late last year that he learned the tumors had reappeared in his lungs, liver and back.
Johnny’s since started a new course of chemotherapy. He’s also got a new bucket list item: Freedom, a German Shepherd puppy.
“I am taking life the way it’s been handed to me,” says Johnny. “Knowing I’m fatigued, I get up in the morning, train him, walk him, and that’s what keeps me going. Having the support of family and friends also helps. It’s the same thing with WCC. I stay positive because I’m deep in my faith, and I am also deep in helping out my fellow brothers and sisters in the military. This is my way of helping out and giving back, I am here for them.”