BY: BILL DIPAOLO / THE PALM BEACH POST

Cpl. Derek Butler says Phoenix the pit bull saved his life.

Army-vetThe Army veteran was given the 55-pound dog about four months ago to use as a service animal by dog rescue and veterans organizations in north county. Butler, who lives in St. Cloud, has been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and is unable to work.

“I was driving one day. Phoenix was in the back. I was depressed. I was going to drive into a pole and kill myself. But I looked back at Phoenix in the back seat. I thought, ‘He doesn’t deserve to die.’ I went home,” said Butler, 27, who served in Iraq from 2006 to 2009.

Phoenix was rescued about a year ago from a Broward animal shelter by Furry Friends Adoption and Clinic in Jupiter. Kerosene was poured over him and he was set on fire, said Patricia Deshong, president of the organization. The brown-and-white dog still bears the scars where he was burned.

“That’s what makes this whole story extraordinary. The dog gets set on fire by humans. Now the dog is spending its life helping Corporal Butler and his family,” said Deshong, who named the dog after the mythical bird that dies in flames and is reborn from its own ashes.

Burns weren’t Phoenix’s only problem. Surgery on his left rear hip was performed for free by Jupiter surgeon Federico Latimer. Phoenix also was placed in a hyperbaric chamber for regular treatment to heal his burns.

The dog was trained for about eight months for free by Canines Aiding Military Veterans, an organization in Jupiter Farms. The organization has trained about 15 dogs for free for veterans with PTSD and those who have had amputations, said Casey DeGeorge, the organization’s founder.

It was love at first sight when she saw Phoenix, DeGeorge said.

“He was scabbed. He was burned all over his body. The smell was overwhelming. But he is so happy. He slept on the couch with me and my daughters,” DeGeorge said.

Butler has visited north county as part of the Renewal Coalition program. Wounded veterans and their families are brought for free and stay in homes for weekly vacations.

“Phoenix has gone through his stuff. I have my stuff. We’re good for each other,” Butler said.

Like any service dog, Phoenix is with Butler all the time, said his wife Kristina. The couple, who were in Tequesta visiting on Thursday, have two children, son Caleb, 5, and daughter Payton,

“The dog has been a huge help with Derek. They need each other,” said Kristina Butler. [email protected]

Twitter: @Billdipaolo