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Air Force vet and his hockey-loving service dog are paying it forward this Veterans Day

Last month, a hockey-loving dog melted hearts as she watched intently from her front-row seat behind the boards while her hometown Nashville Predators opened the season against the Chicago Blackhawks.

Associated Press photographer Jim Diamond noticed a yellow Labrador retriever sitting behind the glass in the background of a photograph he had snapped of Predators defenseman Roman Josi.

"There, just above the Pedigree dasher board advertisement, focusing intently on the action on the ice, was an adorable observer," said Diamond. "A photobomb like that was just too good not to share." He tweeted out the image and it quickly went viral. Then he went over to meet the Predators' furriest fan.

The story got even better. Not only is Annie adorable -- she's also a service dog. The 22-month-old pup and her owner, Air Force veteran Josh Ray, had been paired up days earlier and were on their first official outing together as guests of Hockey Saves, a nonprofit that helps service members enjoy the game. They were celebrating Annie's recent adoption through another nonprofit, Retrieving Freedom Inc.

Ray served in the Air Force from 2002-2006, including deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan, where he loaded and programmed weapons on F-16 aircraft and achieved the ranking of Staff Sergeant. Ray's tenure with the Air Force ended with a medical discharge.

He now works full time in the medical billing department for the Veterans Administration and also volunteers with organizations like Hockey Saves and the Wounded Warrior Project. But he says that since he and Annie were paired, people often ask why he needs a service dog when he seems "perfectly normal."

"When you look at me, you can't tell that anything is wrong with me," says Ray, who has undergone multiple surgeries since being discharged -- including just a few days after Annie's first game. "You can't tell that I've had my left knee surgically repaired. You also can't tell that, before my back was surgically repaired, I was told I might never have been able to walk again. You also can't tell that I've had over 2,000 kidney stones and four kidney surgeries since my first deployment. You also probably can't tell that I have PTSD."

Annie, who has also worked with autistic children, has helped Ray recuperate from his surgery. But her main duty is helping him mitigate the effects of PTSD, or post traumatic stress disorder

During Annie's graduation ceremony from training school, Ray shared a harrowing story from his deployment. "During my first tour [of duty], I watched my best friend fall off a 75-foot cliff," he told the assembled crowd. "He hit the rocky bottom and bounced face-first into the stream. After I scaled the cliff, I jumped into the ice-cold water and I carried him back up. And then we had to drive an hour and 40 minutes back to the medic. I held his head together."

Ray explained that he still has night terrors and nightmares about his friend and other trauma he witnessed during his deployments. "You don't know what someone has been through or what scars they carry," he said.

Annie sleeps on Ray's feet and is trained to recognize the signs of PTSD and to wake him up whenever he has nightmares. She also helps him manage his anxiety and claustrophobia when he's in large crowds, like at Predators games.

Ray's association with Hockey Saves was the reason he and Annie were behind the glass that night. "Those are not my seats," he said with a laugh. "I couldn't afford them." But once the photo -- and their story -- went viral, Annie started getting recognized all over Nashville.

"That photo made her famous," said Ray. "When we went to a Preds' practice a few weeks later, the players all knew her. Cody Bass came up and asked to meet her. He's a dog person and he likes to do things for veterans. He gave us tickets to the next home game."

RFI is funded completely through donations, and Ray and Annie -- who now has her own Twitter handle -- have started a GoFundMe page to help raise money so that another veteran can get a service dog. "We saw the momentum we got from the photo and thought, 'Maybe we can help someone else get a dog,'" says Ray. "We're trying to pay it forward."

The duo has been to several more games at Bridgestone Arena -- Ray notes that Nashville is 5-0 when he and Annie are sitting in the lower bowl -- and when the Predators are on the road, the best buddies curl up on the couch together. "Annie is definitely a hockey fan," he says. "Once the game comes on, she right there next to me. She definitely gets into the games."

Since Nashville is off on Friday, Josh and Annie celebrated this Veterans Day -- where else? -- at a Predators practice. Bass and Predators forward Craig Smith stopped by to pay their respects.

"After I saw the article about Annie, I wanted to reach out to ask if there was anything I could do for them," Bass said after Friday's practice. "I'm a huge dog lover. Josh came to practice today and we had a good chat. I just said, 'Thank you for your service' and then we talked about our dogs and hockey. I look at him as a friend now."

Smith and Ray first met two years ago, during the first round of the playoffs. "We were returning for Game 5 against the Blackhawks," says Smith. "As we walked through the parking lot, Josh came up and introduced himself. He told me he had been in the Air Force and wanted to give me a flag."

It was a flag that Ray had flown in Iraq, Afghanistan and at the White House. He says he gave it to Smith as a sign of appreciation. "Most players stay on the ice until then anthem and then leave," says Ray. "But Craig always stays on the ice until the colors are off the ice."

Smith was honored, and still keeps the flag on his dresser. "It's a very special, visible reminder of how lucky I am," he says. "Every morning, I get to wake up, have my coffee and do what I love because of people like Ray who've made so many sacrifices. I don't think those of us who've never experienced what he has can fully understand it."

At the end of their conversation on Friday, Ray gave Bass a Wounded Warrior coin as a thank you. One side of the coin reads, "The greatest casualty is being forgotten."

"It's a pretty powerful message," says Bass. "I think the veterans of this country kind of get overlooked. What they've done for us and our freedom is pretty special. That coin is something that I'm going to treasure for the rest of my life. "

On Saturday, Ray is heading back to Bridgestone Arena to cheer on his beloved Preds, courtesy of Bass -- and his service dog will be at his side once again, keeping him company, keeping him calm -- and helping him count his blessings.

"I don't know if I saved Annie or she saved me," says Ray. "But I'm sure lucky to have her in my life."