Therapy dog serves as wounded Army vet's best man
When wounded Army veteran Justin Lansford married his long-time love Carol Balmes last Saturday, he knew there was one special guy he wanted as his best man: Gabe the Golden Retriever.
And the four-year-old pup more than lived up to the role.
Gabe, who has been Lansford's therapy dog since 2013, sat proudly at his side during the wedding in Largo, Florida before walking the newlyweds down the aisle. Dressed in a specially-made shirt adorned with Lansford's service badges, he spent the rest of the evening charming the guests.
"He loved having his picture taken," Balmes, 25, told INSIDE EDITION. "He was going from table to table saying hello to everyone. The whole next day he was exhausted!"
Gabe met Lansford after the paratrooper lost his left leg and suffered multiple other serious injuries while serving in Afghanistan in April 2012. Lansford had been in the country for two months when an IED blew up his truck, which pinned him to the ground for half an hour as he waited for help to arrive.
Lansford, now 26, underwent four months of surgeries at Walter Reed Medical Center in Maryland and endured multiple infections. He was fitted with a prosthetic leg and slowly began learning how to walk again.
"He was so motivated to get back to what he was," Balmes said. "He was very determined. He was very impressive."
Lansford added: "I'm still learning every day."
When he was getting ready to leave the medical center, Balmes was working for the Warrior Canine Connection, an organization that helps wounded veterans readjust with help from therapy dogs. Staff there suggested that he meet one of their newly trained pups, Gabe.
And that was that.
"Gabe cried and wiggled and rolled around on the ground," Lansford remembered. "It was just an instant bond. It's only gotten stronger."
Over the past two years, Gabe has not left Lansford's side. He helps him pick things up, supports him as he stands, stops him if he falls and even collects drinks for him from the fridge. But most importantly, he offers unwavering emotional support.
"The emotional help he gives me is just as much as the physical help," Lansford told IE. "It's really easy to get through a day when I've got a smiling face with me. It makes every day worth it."
Gabe was even part of Lansford's proposal to Balmes on Veteran's Day last year. The couple, who met in high school in Snelville, Georgia as teenagers before reconnecting in 2011, were at the park with Gabe and their other dog, Macy, when Lansford turned to Gabe to help him pop the question.
He attached a GoPro camera to Gabe's collar before putting a ring box in the pup's mouth and sending him over to his girlfriend.
"I thought it was a ball," she said. "When I took out the box and turned around, Justin was down on one knee."
And when it came to the wedding, the couple said there was never a doubt that their beloved Gabe would be part of the big day.
"There was never a question about it," Lansford said: "He deserved it. I love him. He's my best friend. He approaches every day with a smile. I couldn't imagine anyone I would rather have next to me than Gabe."
Photos: Brad Hall Studios
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