After he retired from active service, 58-year-old Staten Island man Luciano Yulfo got the surprise of his life. The injured veteran was attending a New York Knicks basketball game in late 2016 when he suddenly found himself the center of attention. And what happened next left him lost for words.
Luciano had bravely served in the U.S. Army for 36 years and reached the rank of Sergeant First Class. He saw plenty of combat during that time, playing his part in Operation Iraqi Freedom, which eventually took out that country’s dictator, Saddam Hussein. In addition, Luciano did his duty in the fight against global terrorism, also known as Operation Enduring Freedom.
Unfortunately, it would be this conflict which saw disaster strike Luciano and effectively end his military career. In July 2014 the sergeant was stationed in Afghanistan when he was severely wounded by an enemy mortar bomb. And his subsequent extensive injuries meant that he was no longer fit for active duty. Indeed, soon after the mortar hit, Luciano was repatriated to the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland. Due to the severity of his injuries, the soldier was stationed there for another two years. Then, in April 2016, Yulfo retired and rejoined his family in New York City.
Nevertheless, the veteran had adjustments to make due to his disabilities. Every single bone in his left leg had been broken in the mortar blast. So Luciano had to rely on the assistance of a cane to walk. He also struggled with hearing and vision loss and, not surprisingly, post-traumatic stress disorder. At one point, doctors even warned Luciano that he may even need to have his leg amputated in the future.
Consequently, the veteran of both Iraq and Afghanistan had applied for a service dog to help him get around more easily. But by the time November 2016 rolled around, Luciano had been on the waiting list for 18 months and still had not received the support animal. Instead, his 28-year-old daughter, Sonia, had become his round-the-clock caregiver.
Sonia revealed to the military caregivers charity Hidden Heroes that she had started caring for her dad full-time when her mother felt unable to shoulder the responsibility. “It was my obligation as his daughter and an American citizen to help my father who was in need of assistance,” she stated on the Hidden Heroes website. “One of the most significant things I’ve learned is how to fight for what the veteran needs, and make sure those needs get fulfilled.”
Nonetheless, she soon discovered that Luciano’s injuries were worse than anyone realized when she got him home to Staten Island. His complications included the consequences of traumatic brain injury and chronic illness. “I never thought a month would turn into spending two years with him in the hospital and ongoing after he retired,” Sonia said. “My father likes to say that I am his life support and his life line, because I can read how he’s feeling better than he can express his words.”
Then Luciano and Sonia received tickets for a New York Knicks basketball fixture at Madison Square Garden to be held two days before Veteran’s Day. The invitation had been extended as part of the NBA’s Hoops For Troops program. The ex-serviceman had been to games in the past, but this one would prove to be very different.
Soon enough, Wednesday, November 9 dawned. “He just thought we were going to the game and that he was going to be recognized for his service,” Sonia later told the TV current affairs show Inside Edition. The Knicks were playing the Brooklyn Nets and ended up winning 110-96. But the veteran still had no clue at half time who would turn out to be the biggest winner on the day.
A proud Luciano and his doting daughter were brought out to the center of the court during halftime. The former soldier was no stranger to being honored, having received numerous medals and awards during his long military career. So Luciano was under the impression that something similar would happen at this half-time tribute. Indeed, the former soldier was presented with a personalized Knicks jersey with “Yulfo” across the back from NBA All-Star Larry Johnson. However, that was not to be the only present passed over.
The loudspeaker announced that there was a surprise in store for Luciano “as a token of appreciation” for his service. And it appeared that the one thing the veteran had been holding out for so long was finally here. Sonia elbowed her dad because he was struggling to hear due to his aural impairment. But it was his eyes that he could not believe when he realized what his daughter was alerting him to.
Sonia pointed to a gorgeous golden retriever, who was being led on to the basketball court by a handler. “What? What? Sonia? Really?” Luciano verbally stumbled. His daughter was similarly overcome with emotion and she began to cry. But it later emerged that this happy turn of events was no surprise to Sonia.
Indeed, Luciano’s loving daughter and carer had been quietly working hard behind the scenes to make it happen. For weeks she had been liaising with Tri-State wounded ex-servicepeoples’ charity Cow Harbor Warriors and the not-for-profit Paws of War, which rescues and trains dogs to be service animals for veterans. It was volunteers from the latter organization who presented the assistance dog – Murphy – to Luciano.
Sonia later admitted that it had been no easy undertaking to hide her covert scheming from her father. “Keeping it a secret was really hard, because I tell him everything,” she informed the Inside Edition cameras. But, evidently, she had succeeded and that night it appeared to have been well worth the effort.
As Murphy approached his new owner in the center circle, Luciano had a huge grin on his face. When the golden retriever got close enough, the veteran dropped to his knees and wrapped his arms around the excited canine. Luciano gave Murphy kisses and the pup responded in kind.
It soon became clear that both Luciano and Murphy could not have been happier with the new arrangement. The crowd were applauding along with Johnson at the sweet moment. Luciano had finally got the dog he so wanted and needed. And what’s more, the couple seemed to have made an instant connection.
Sonia explained to Inside Edition the difference that her dad’s new best friend will make in providing assistance to Luciano, especially considering his damaged leg. “He can lean his weight on Murphy if he stumbles,” she said. “If he drops his cane, Murphy can pick it up.”
The Hoops for Troops program honors veterans who have served or are currently serving in the military. And the heartwarming moment when Luciano and Murphy first met will not be forgotten anytime soon. More than one million people have viewed the clip of their meeting on Instagram, with many commenters saying that the scene reduced them to tears.
However, according to Sonia, no-one is feeling more emotional about the whole episode than Luciano. Her dad is totally thrilled with Murphy and the care and support that the service dog is able to give him. Sonia told Inside Edition, “He thanked me for giving him back his independence.”