COLUMBIA – Veterans receiving medical treatment can receive free care for their pets with a new program funded by a foundation and supported by Gov Henry McMaster.

"These exceptional lives that have a pet at home and have to leave to go to the hospital and do not know when to come back – what are they going to do?" McMaster said at the press conference Wednesday while his English bulldog, Mac, was sniffing at his heels.

Boots in Service, named after McMaster's late bulldog that sparkled in campaign advertisements, will assist veterans who need health care with boarding, foster homes, medical services and training for free.

"We have worked with Veteran Affairs (social workers) in recent years and … we have discovered that there are veterans who need medical services who refuse treatment because of the lack of options for their pets," said Tai MacIlwinen, chairman of Pawmetto Lifeline, a shelter that provides the pet care of the program.

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

"My father was a member of the largest generation, serving in both the old Army Air Corps and the Korean War in the United States Air Force," said Michael Mungo's son, Stewart Mungo, at a press conference on the American Legion Post 6. "In my later life, my father's main companion was a small multi-breed dog who always walked around with a plate in his mouth, and we can find a lot of comfort in (pets)."

Mungo is together with S.C. first lady Peggy McMaster on the Pawmetto board.

Pawmetto Lifeline CEO Denise Wilkinson said the program will be mainly based on Midlands, but the program would consider requests from nearly 400,000 veterans from across the state. Organizers said they hoped that other similar groups would start over South Carolina.

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"We take referrals from veterans of regional hospitals or a VA and then we take care of the pets from there," Wilkinson said. Boots in Service will ask for pet payments 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, often said that she has taken pets from veterans to enable their owners to get health care.

"We have many veterans who have isolated themselves from the family and the only one they really have is their pet – that's their safety," 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 attorney general, particularly the persecution of dog hunter David Tant.

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