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Sit, stay, oink: Bella the therapy pig settles in Sierra Vista

SIERRA VISTA — She can sit on command, is totally potty-trained and could eat Cheerios gently from an outstretched hand all day if she had the time.

Bella, a micro pig on the verge of her second birthday, stays pretty busy. When she’s not enjoying time with her biological brother Pua, taking a bath in her play pool or playing with her pack of fellow rescue animals, Bella works to provide much needed comfort.

The pig, often dolled up in a brightly colored tutu or bow, is a therapy pig certified through the American Mini Pig Association’s therapy pet training program.

The Juliana breed pig of about 65 to 70 pounds visits nursing homes, hospices, schools, children and just about any other facility that’s interested. Bella can do everything a therapy dog can, but brings something unique when she visits.

Owner Paula Behrman said people respond to Bella in a big way and the pig is just happy to be around people.

“It’s interesting because most people are used to a service dog, so she’s different and I love it,” she said. “There’s something special about her and she knows, she’s very intune with people.”

“They (pigs) are very sensitive, they are very smart, very family-oriented — they are pack animals so they don’t like to be alone.”

Behrman always wanted to train a service animal and as an animal rescuer she always had assumed it would be a dog. However, none of her rescue dogs had quite the right temperament for therapy work.

She said boyfriend Danny Eichelberger is the one who put the idea of training a therapy pig into her head.

“She’s the best animal I’ve ever had, honestly, and I would have never gotten a pig if it wasn’t for Danny — he wanted one, so I was like, ‘Let’s do it. I’ll train her,’” Behrman said. “They are super easy to train — they listen well and they are very food-driven — you can get them to do anything if you have food.”

Behrman and Eichelberger adopted Bella’s older brother Pua from a family where he was kept in a cage and had developed atrophy about a year and a half ago. Bella was about 6 months old when they adopted her and she was socialized with humans from the start.

“With her, she’s always been around people, that’s always been kind of her thing,” Eichelberger said. “She likes people, she loves being around people, she likes kids.”

At the time, they were living in Tucson and Behrman said she was lucky enough to work at a cemetary that allowed her to bring Bella to work. They started visiting nursing homes and Bella went through her therapy pet training program.

“She would have to sit, to stay, she’d have to leave food which is super hard for a pig, then different touches, wheelchairs...,” Behrman said. “For example, when you’re in a dementia unit some people may pet her hard or grab her and she doesn’t care, she’s used to it.”

The couple moved to the Hereford area about 7 months ago and Behrman is working to get the word out about Bella and find her niche within the community.

So far, they recently visited residents at Via Elegante Assisted Living in Hereford, who responded so well to the experience they might bring Bella in regularly.

“With the dementia patients, some of the people they say don’t talk or they don’t really interact with anybody but when they meet Bella they start talking about when they were on the farm when they were younger,” Behrman said. “This one lady was talking about how she used to ride her potbelly pig and the staff were like ‘she never says that.’ She brings something out in people.”

Eichelberger attested to Bella’s abilities to reach people, even those who struggle to remember their pasts.

“It brings back a lot of memories for the older people and it seems like it stimulates their minds,” he said. “I’ve been on a couple visits and the people really like it; it’s different and a lot of them seem to have grown up on a farm.”

When Bella visits a location, they have the group sit in a circle around her and everyone gets the opportunity to feed her fruit and vegetables. She’s gentle enough that children all the way up to the elderly can feed her from their hands or a fork if they prefer.

Sessions last for an hour and half and Bella will stop by the rooms of bed-ridden patients so everyone gets a chance to interact with her.

The work feels good, not just for Bella and the people who get to pet her, but for Behrman and Eichelberger too.

“I’ll tell you, when we went and did our first visit (in Sierra Vista) it brought my soul back,” Behrman said. “It’s so fulfilling and she’s so fun to be with and it’s so fun to see everyone’s reaction to her, how happy they get.”

When Bella isn’t bringing smiles to people’s faces, she can found relaxing at home, affectionately called the Misfit Ranch.

Behrman and Eichelberger have a menagerie of rescue animals — two pigs (Bella and Pua), seven dogs and 10 cats.

The animals all exist in harmony and are very much Bella’s pack and family.

While Behrman said that the overall care of pigs involves much of the same care for a dog or other pet, pigs have special requirements, particularly when it comes to social time.

“They’re good pets and they do well with dogs and cats,” Eichelberger said. “They’re like children, you have time to give them.”

Behrman is looking forward to introducing Bella to the community and continuing the therapy work.

“That’s the thing with her, she relieves your stress and she puts smiles on peoples’ faces,” Behrman said. “It’s becoming more common to use pigs as a service animal.”

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Weathers resigns as commander of Purple Heart organization

SIERRA VISTA — On Monday, James “Eddie” Weathers sent a letter to all members of the Military Order of the Purple Heart Chapter 572 resigning from his position of chapter commander.

The MOPH is a Congressionally chartered United States war veterans organization for veterans who have received a Purple Heart(s) during their time of service, with chapters all across the country.

Weathers’ reason for resigning is tied to several incidents that occured between himself and another veteran at a fundraising event in front of Fry’s Food on May 23 and 24.

During the event, another veteran, who has been identified as Donald Childs by the website militaryphonys.com, which wrote on the incident, approached the MOPH table with his service dog, which was off leash. Weathers said he asked the man if he knew that the state’s leash laws applied to service dogs.

“It escalated quickly into an argument which escalated and escalated to the point to where not only myself but two other wounded veterans were being accused of falsely portraying themselves,” Weathers told the Herald/Review on Monday, shortly after his resignation letter was sent.

“This individual was shouting and said words to the effect of ‘I bet that money is going in your pockets that these people are giving you,’ which just set me off further,” he said.

Weathers said the argument continued and a fellow MOPH member stepped between the two men to stop it, though it picked up again about 45 minutes later.

The next day, Weathers worked the fundraising booth at Frys again and spotted Childs taking video and photos in the parking lot of the MOPH table.

“I was heated, very angry in a shouting match and he shouted, ‘So you were wounded four times?’ I said, ‘yes.’ He said, ‘so you have four Purple Hearts?’ I said ‘no,’” Weathers said.

“This continued and it ended with me shouting in his face ‘yes, I have four Purple Hearts, now go away,’ and it was the complete wrong thing to do.”

Childs wanted to see Weathers’ DD 214, a document of a person’s military service, but he doesn’t carry it on him. Childs later contacted the state department of the MOPH as well as several websites, including militaryphony.com, which conducts investigations claims related to combat veterans and stolen valor.

Weathers was contacted by Larry Leighton, adjutant of the Department of Arizona’s MOPH, the following week and was asked about the altercation, as well as was informed there was a stolen valor accusation made against him.

After that call, Weathers said he altered a copy of his DD 214.

“I took a copy of my DD 214, I scanned it and using Powerpoint I changed the ‘second’ award to the ‘fourth’ award and emailed it off (to Leighton) as a continuation of the argument,” he said. “It was a ‘screw you.’”

Weathers claims full responsibility for his “dishonorable” action and regrets it. He said that he has a long history of alcohol and substance abuse and during the altercations, talk with Leighton and the time he falsified the documents he was impaired.

“I have no excuse for my actions, fully knowing those actions have brought discredit on anyone who’s ever worn a uniform and I have no excuse for it,” he said. “I can only move on from here which begins with tomorrow where for the first time I will seriously and openly inquire about substance abuse treatment.”

The resignation took effect immediately and Junior Vice Commander Gary Blankenship will step into the role of commander. Weathers is just a regular member at this point, though he said the membership is entitled to the option to revoke his membership.

Weathers sent his resignation letter to all members of MOPH as well as militaryphony.com, which has been in contact with him since they were contacted by Childs.

Dave Hardin, one of the administrators at the website as well as several similar ones, said that sadly there are many people who falsify or embellish their military experience.

They look into each claim they receive and investigate to see if there is merit to the acquisition. With Weathers’ case, Hardin called it “a case of a guy who had no reason to embellish.”

“From all accounts, it seems like he tries to do good work and supports veterans, but he falsified a submitted document,” Hardin said. “There was no reason to do this and his embellishments did not match with the records.”

“The bottom line is if anybody can claim valor in military service then there is no valor in military service; it’s disgusting.”

Though Hardin said he wishes no ill on Weathers, he believes the resignation was the right choice.

“The man should resign. He should be held to the same standard as anyone else,” he said. “If you falsify a military record and lie about service, you should be expelled from the organization.”

Weathers said he believed militaryphony.com were fair and professional in their investigation, though he felt “pressed” timewise.

When reached out to by the website, Weathers asked to have until July 8 to respond to the allegations. He said his wife was out of town and he felt she above all should and deserved to hear it from him face to face.

Beth Weathers had a commitment out of town from mid-June until this weekend dealing with a stressful family situation.

“He was respecting my stress level because it was high without even knowing this,” she said. “It’s not something you want to text or call to discuss.”

“I’m frustrated it was not handled quicker because it does look bad on him, but at the same time, how can you not love somebody that tries to protect you.”

Beth Weathers said people from the militaryphony website commented via email that Eddie’s open communication and honesty through this was extremely rare behavior.

She said that they both felt that being honest with the public was the only way to handle this matter. She feels like many veterans are struggling with substance abuse and mental health.

“He has to seek treatment that’s residential somewhere, that’s a substantial amount of time to get control over alcohol and substances and that’s what he plans to do,” she said. “He does have a traumatic brain injury, mental illness, PTSD, a seizure disorder, and so many other veterans have the same things.”

Eddie Weathers asks people respect his family and reiterated that he is solely responsible in this. He said that anyone who was asked about his Purple Hearts and confirmed he had four only did so because they didn’t know about the falsification yet. They didn’t know until Weathers confessed to them starting Sunday.

“No matter what I’ve done previously for MOPH and wounded veterans, whatever I do in the future, my actions of changing the 214 and sending it off as a simple ‘F you’ completely brings a shadow of discredit and dishonor on the organization and wonderful men and women who ever served our country,” he said. “I have no excuse for it.”