Photo by Carleigh Gray

By Hatley Wood

Jessica Rambo is a Marine, having served 10 years in the USMC as a Combat Cameraman. She’d been around the military long before she enlisted in 2006, though – her mother spent 6 years in the Navy and an additional 14 years in the Coast Guard. She is enrolled as an art education and sculpting major at UNC’s prestigious program and serves as the president of the UNCG Student Veterans Association. With whatever free time she has, she works on converting an old school bus into a traveling art studio to provide art classes to fellow veterans. This mother of 2 also has a superhero sidekick: her service dog, Bella, a black lab who was Jessica’s pet before she was a service dog.

We recently had the chance to sit down with Jessica and hear her entire story. Here’s what she had to say.

Photo by UNCG

ASD: I wanted to start off discussing your life pre-Bella so that people can better understand the impact she’s had on your life. What are some of the challenges you faced before having a service dog?
Rambo: I’ve actually had Bella since she was 5 months old, so before for my injury. This was way before I knew about Semper K9. I was in a car accident in 2010 and suffered a Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) and because of this, I suffer from PTSD. Before I had Bella, who goes everywhere with me, a lot of times I would become confused or anxious. I was debilitatingly depressed and suicidal. When I heard about Semper K9 from another Marine, we were both in an inpatient treatment facility.

ASD: So, this Marine was the first person to introduce you to the idea of a service dog?
Rambo: Yes, the Marine was the first person I’d discussed it with when he brought up Semper K9. I was actually talking to him about his service dog he was getting through Semper K9; I mentioned that I also had a dog who I was extremely attached to. He suggested that I talk to Amanda and Chris, the founders of Semper K9 and see how they could help me train Bella for my needs.

Rambo and Bella at the finish line of the 43rd Marine Corps Marathon with Team Semper K9

ASD: Wow, what a lucky coincidence! Did you face any challenges while waiting through the process of discussing a service dog with Semper K9? What was that like, waiting for Bella to be a service dog?
Rambo: Fortunately, I didn’t have any trouble getting my service dog because she was already my dog. I have heard stories about other veterans who are discouraged about applying for a service dog because they don’t think they are “critical” enough to get one. Also, it sometimes takes years for veterans to receive a service dog or be accepted into a program. Although I did not get my Service dog from Semper K9, they have educated me, provided resources, and helped me through the entire process of training Bella to be my service dog. I worked with another group to see if they could help me, but the process was a hassle and unhelpful. Semper K9 scooped me up and was the family that I needed. They have been with me literally every step of the way.

ASD: How was the transition process after she became your service dog into home, society, and work life?
Rambo: Because Bella was already my dog, there were no problems transitioning her into my home. I was stationed at the Pentagon when I first started bringing Bella to work. However, the Major whose command I was under at the time was not on board with me bringing her to work. With the help of Semper K9 and other inner-Pentagon leadership, though, I was able to bring Bella to work eventually.

ASD: That is definitely good to hear. Bella has the cutest name – any story behind it?
Rambo: When I got Bella as a puppy, her name was Star, but I didn’t like that. At the time the Twilight movies were popular, so we called her Bella, after the main character. I’d rather just say that she is named after Belleau Wood which is a really famous World War 1 battle that the USMC played a vital role in. Bella is a goofball – she loves to rub on anyone who wears perfume to get the smell of it on her. People love her – at UNCG, people will sit on the floor just so she’ll rub on them. She’ll steal your seat (and maybe your heart)!

ASD:  Hey, whatever works! Can you tell me about how she has changed your life to illustrate to people the impact that service dogs can have?
Rambo: With the aid of my service dog, Bella, I’ve successfully transitioned out of the US Marine Corps; I’ve become an active and thriving student at the University of North Carolina – Greensboro. I am a part of the work-study program at the Military Affiliated Services and Veterans Resource Center. She has been incredible for my family, too – my son learned to walk by holding onto her ears and standing up. The constant of having Bella at my side really helped me through my recovery, divorce, medical separation, and transition to college. I’m a better student, person and mother because of the security that Bella provides to me.

ASD: We wish you and Bella all the best and continued success; you deserve it. Do you any parting words to service members who are thinking about a service dog or waiting to bring a service dog into their life?
Rambo: Although this whole thing may seem never-ending, it does end. There is a light at the end of the tunnel. Hang on, stay strong. It is all worth it at the end.

You can follow Jessica and Bella’s story and their adventure to remodel their bus to give back to their Veteran community with the links below.