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On the morning after the midterm elections, about 20 WUSA9 staffers—on-air reporters, news managers, producers and assignment editors—gather in a conference room at the station’s headquarters on Wisconsin Avenue NW to review the previous night’s performance and plan the day’s coverage.
As reporters and editors kick around whether to follow up on a story about Prince George’s County officials underestimating turnout and running out of ballots on Election Day, Nigel silently lays on his side on the floor, his eyes closed, at the feet of reporter Andrea McCarren.
About thirty minutes into the meeting, McCarren gently tugs Nigel’s leash, and the 62-pound yellow Labrador-Golden Retriever cross is up on his paws. Before the meeting started, Nigel greeted several staffers, jumping up on his hind legsfor some of his favorites, rolling over for belly rubs from others. It’s a bittersweet day for McCarren, who raised Nigel from a pup and has spent almost every waking moment with him for the past 18 months, during which time she’s trained him to respond to about 20 commands.
This is Nigel’s last day accompanying her to the station. At the end of the week, McCarren will drive Nigel to Medford, New York, where he will join dozens of other dogs for advanced training at Canine Companions for Independence. Eventually, each canine will become a service dog for an injured veteran or a child or adult with a disability.
By the end of the month, McCarren will depart WUSA herself, leaving behind a successful TV journalism career and thousands of ardent fans who’ve followed her adventures raising Nigel and before him, Bunce, a yellow Lab. (Andrea raised Bunce in 2015 and 2016, and he was named after Marine Cpl. Justin Bunce, who was seriously wounded in Iraq in 2004.) Come January, she’ll join PenFed Credit Union, where she’ll create and lead the company’s new digital division. McCarren will continue to produce stories on veterans, active duty service members, and military families.
Why would a TV journalist leave the arena when she’s arguably at the top of her game? McCarren has won 22 Emmy Awards, a Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights citation, and a prestigious Nieman Fellowship at Harvard University, among other awards.
In a competitive TV market where many local reporters come and go, McCarren, who began working in the D.C. area in 1991, is one of the longest-tenured and arguably among the most-recognized local TV journalists in the region.
But in recent years, she realized, reporting was exacting a growing psychological toll. McCarren, whose default setting is perky and upbeat, has covered countless horrible acts of violence: The killings at the Capital Gazette in Annapolis, the massacres at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, the movie theater in Aurora, the elementary school in Sandy Hook; the Lululemon murder and the D.C. Sniper and Shotgun Stalker attacks. “It’s been this steady drumbeat of tragedy and bloodshed,” says McCarren. Add to that the toxic atmosphere journalists must contend with, trying to do their jobs while the current president denigrates them as “enemies of the people.”
“There’s just so many haters out there now,” McCarren says. “It is a terrible climate to be a journalist right now. It’s not safe. It was wearing me down. I needed a more rewarding sense of purpose.”
She’s found that sense of mission in raising Bunce and Nigel, and in reporting on the challenges that veterans, active duty service members, and military families face. For the past three years, McCarren has covered her assignments with either Bunce or Nigel in tow. Bringing along an adorable service dog in training set McCarren apart from other reporters. Military officials, cops, members of Congress and others swooned over Bunce and Nigel, rubbing their bellies and often insisting on a photo with one of McCarren’s canine trainees. Similarly, McCarren found herself attracted to the deep sense of loyalty veterans and active military members feel for each other. “They always have each other’s back,” she says.
When she began raising Bunce, McCarren had a few thousand Twitter followers. Today, she has more than 13,000. For more than a year, she blogged in Bunce’s voice, and some posts garnered as many as 500,000 hits. Raising service dogs has given McCarren credibility with many veterans and service members, which has led to important stories. Last April, she reported on how some veterans suffered acute psychiatric and physical symptoms after the Defense Department ordered them to take mefloquine, an anti-malarial drug.
In late 2015, Erin Miller of Silver Spring tweeted to McCarren after reading some of her postings. Miller was trying to persuade the federal government to allow her grandmother, Elaine Danforth Harmon, who flew non-combat missions with the Women Airforce Service Pilots during World War II, to be buried at Arlington National Cemetery. In December, 2015, McCarren did a piece on the Miller family’s efforts on behalf of Harmon, who had died earlier that year at 95. The Associated Press then did a story, and it went national. Within weeks, U.S. Rep. Martha McSally (R-Ariz.), who flew A-10 Warthogs in Kuwait and Iraq, sponsored legislation to allow WASPs to be buried at Arlington. President Barack Obama signed the legislation in May, 2016, and Harmon’s ashes were buried in Arlington that September.
McCarren has always had an affinity for veterans. Her father, Armand Korzenik, served in the Air Force and Air National Guard, rising to the rank of Brigadier General. But she hadn’t served in the military, and wanted to contribute. When she brought up the idea of bringing up a service dog with her husband, Bill McCarren, executive director of the National Press Club, he was all in.
She had no expectations when she started raising Bunce, but the the way people responded to her canine charge took her aback—in a good way—immediately. “It’s astonishing,” she says.
For example, in the spring of 2017, Jennifer Davis, a local freelance journalist, contacted McCarren and asked whether her daughter, Bella, could meet Nigel. Davis and Bella had been following Nigel on McCarren’s social media. Bella, who is 6, was born with a rare liver condition and had recently undergone a painful procedure. Davis asked her what she wanted as a reward for being brave. “I just want to meet Nigel,” she said.
McCarren and Davis arranged to meet in the parking lot of a restaurant near Glen Echo Park early on a Saturday morning. Davis asked for 10 minutes; the rendezvous lasted an hour. Bella and Nigel hit it off. “Those two, from the moment they met, just clicked,” Davis says. “She was tickled. She kept saying, ‘He likes me, he likes me.’ He followed her wherever she went. She laid her head on him. She was just happy. You know what she was? She was just a normal little girl having a normal time with a sweet dog.”
Last August, McCarren took Nigel to the office of U.S. Rep. Mike Thompson (D-Calif.) on Capitol Hill to meet his congressional fans. Thompson represents Santa Rosa, which is where Nigel’s organization, Canine Companions for Independence, is headquartered. The congressman’s office has established a tradition known as “Nigel Days.” A staffer framed one of Nigel’s business cards with a photo of him as a puppy. (McCarren had the picture cards, similar to small baseball cards, made up for both dogs.) When a staffer is having a tough day they get to keep the picture on their desk.
McCarren doesn’t know whether Nigel will get a placement with a wounded veteran or a child or adult with a disability. Some people ask her how she could bear to part with a lovable Lab she’s raised. “How can I not?” she says. “More than 20 veterans are killing themselves every day. How can I not try to save a life or make a life better?”
Dan Berschinski, 34, the wounded warrior who got Bunce in early 2017, would attest to that. Berschinksi, an Army first lieutenant in Afghanistan, lost both his legs when he stepped on an improvised explosive device in that country in 2009. Bunce went to live with Berschinski in the Atlanta area in early 2017. During a speech at a PenFed fundraiser at the Congressional Country Club in October, Berschinski spoke of the tangible ways Bunce helps him—retrieving objects and pulling him and his wheelchair up a hill. Then he spoke of the intangible help.
“A service dog can be a game-changer,” Berschinski said. “In our brief time together Bunce has already pulled me out of a few dark holes, not physically but emotionally. Every day that I get to take him out for a walk is a special day.”
James Schenck, PenFed’s president and CEO and a West Point grad, says McCarren’s canine-raising efforts have already changed the culture at his organization. Inspired by her efforts, two employees are raising service dogs in PenFed’s Tysons Corner headquarters, and in 2019, that number will rise to five. McCarren will be among the PenFed employees raising a service dog—she announced on Twitter she’ll be training another canine.
“That’s going to change five lives,” says Schenck.