When Staff Sergeant Joseph VanBencoten, U.S. Army, retired, graduated from Pfeiffer in May with a bachelor’s degree in biology, his service dog and “best friend,” Marlee, was by his side. As they crossed the stage together, Marlee was recognized by President Keith for her loyalty to Joe with a surprise “Honorary Bachelor’s Degree in Canine Science and Dogmatic Therapy.”
Joe’s 12-year Army career, which includes tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan as well as time with the U.S. Army Reserve and volunteering with homeless veterans, inspired him to seek a career that has a positive impact on military veterans. Initially, his intention was to attend medical school and devote his career to serving the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) as a physician. After learning about the overwhelming and ongoing need among veterans for mental health services, he’s decided instead to pursue a doctorate in clinical psychology.
“I know that with my service-related disability, which Marlee helps me manage every day, I sometimes get frustrated,” said Joe. “I want to continue to help veterans—now as a volunteer and later as a psychologist—with the mental health challenges they face.”
With several psychology courses under his belt, which he completed at Pfeiffer and the community college where he started his education, Joe is confident he’ll find the doctoral program that fits his needs. He acknowledges Pfeiffer’s Department of Academic Support Services for providing the testing required to determine the services and accommodations he’d need to succeed at Pfeiffer and thanks members of the biology department faculty for their support.
“Everyone went above and beyond,” he said. “And Marlee saved my life. She instinctively knows when I need her to distract me or calm me down.”
Joe met Marlee, a Rhodesian Ridgeback, through the VA and Train a Dog Save a Warrior (TADSAW.org), a nonprofit organization that rescues dogs and trains them for service. Now he, his wife, Holly O’Grady VanBencoten ’06, and their two young sons, can’t imagine life at home in Asheboro, N.C., without her.
“She’s truly a member of the family,” he said.