Mac McMaster

Gov. Henry McMaster holds his family's bulldog, Mac, with his wife, S.C. first lady Peggy McMaster, at an American Legion Post on Wednesday as they announce a new program to provide care for pets of veterans getting medical treatments. Rachel Pittman/Special to The Post and Courier 

COLUMBIA — Veterans getting medical treatment can receive free care for their pets with a new program funded by a foundation and backed by Gov. Henry McMaster.

“These exceptional lives who have a pet at home and who have to leave to go to the hospital and don’t know when they may be back — what are they going to do?” McMaster said at news conference Wednesday while his English bulldog, Mac, sniffed at his heels.

Boots in Service, named for McMaster’s late bulldog who starred in campaign ads, will provide the pets of veterans in need of health care with boarding, foster homes, medical services and training free of charge.

“We’ve worked with (the social workers) at Veteran Affairs for the last few years and ... we discovered that there are veterans in need of medical services who will refuse treatment due to the lack of options for their pets,” said Tai MacIlwinen, chairwoman of Pawmetto Lifeline, a shelter that will provide pet care for the program.

After the idea for the program was hatched by Pawmetto Lifeline and Veterans Affairs social workers, it was backed by the McMasters and funded by the Michael J. Mungo Foundation. 

"My dad was a member of the greatest generation, he served in both the old Army Air Corps and then, during the Korean War, in the United States Air Force," Michael Mungo’s son, Stewart Mungo, said at a news conference at the American Legion Post 6. "In later life, my dad’s main companion was a little multi-breed dog that always walked around with a plate in his mouth. We can find tremendous comfort in (pets)."

Mungo, along with S.C. first lady Peggy McMaster, sit on the Pawmetto board. 

Pawmetto Lifeline CEO Denise Wilkinson said the program will be mainly Midlands based, but the program would consider requests from the nearly 400,000 veterans from around the state. Organizers said they hope other similar groups will get started across South Carolina.

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"We’ll take referrals of veterans from the regional hospitals or a VA and then we’ll take care of the pets from there," Wilkinson said. Boots in Service will ask for payments to care for pets from the Mungo Foundation as needed, she said.

Darlene Walton, the adjutant at American Legion Post 130 in Cayce and the owner of two dogs, said many times she has taken in pets belonging to veterans to enable their owners to receive health care.

"We’ve got a lot of veterans out there who have isolated themselves from family and the only one that they really have is their pet — that’s their security," Walton said.

Organizers said they named the program after Boots in honor of McMaster's work for veterans and his fight against animal cruelty as state attorney general, notably the prosecution of dog fighter David Tant.

"They say if you want a friend in Washington, get a dog," McMaster said. "This is a great program and I don’t know how many other states are doing this, but we are and we’re going to work for it and support it."