Group lends veterans a helping paw
Kerrville Daily Times, Texas (MCT)
A charity started by local Elk’s Club members is pairing service dogs with disabled veterans. Two dogs are in training with their prospective vets.
If all goes well, Susie, a chocolate lab, will stay with Iraq War veteran Isaac Carpenter and his wife at their Kerrville home and become the “furry battle buddy” Carpenter said he wants her to be.
“Battle buddy — when I started basic (training) it was the first concept they drilled into us, to always work in pairs, so somebody has your back,” Carpenter said. “Having been deployed, surrounded by other soldiers, people who have your back, and coming home, there’s a loss. I can feel it when I go out somewhere. There’s a loss of camaraderie, a loss of someone there you know you can trust to watch you.”
Like many war veterans, by the time Carpenter came home from his last deployment overseas, he’d sacrificed some of his health and well-being.
A combat medic for nine and a half years, Carpenter was injured in a training accident prior to his third deployment to Iraq in 2009, and by the time he was medically discharged in 2012 at age 36, he’d been diagnosed with a degenerative back condition, PTSD and related anxiety disorders.
Carpenter’s back injury makes it hard for him to pick things up and do many household tasks. His experiences in Iraq have affected his ability to stay calm in crowded places, which can make trips to the grocery store and other everyday situations highly unpleasant.
Susie already knows how to pick up certain objects by name, including keys and socks, she she can find a lost cell phone, open drawers, move clothes from a dryer into a laundry basket, and she can pull the basket. Carpenter also will use her to steady himself when he walks; he uses a cane for short walks and a wheelchair for long distances.
Dog trainer Tammy Doherty will help train Susie to help Carpenter cope with anxiety in public. When the need arises, she’ll be able to put herself between him and strangers to increase his sense of personal space and security, and she’ll try to lick or nudge him out of a bad mental state, or help him leave the area. At first, she’ll do this by responding to commands, but as she observes Carpenter’s pattern of behavior before he gives cues, she’ll be able to intervene without explicit prompting.
Doherty said Susie may be ready to stay with Carpenter by February.
Carpenter and Susie met one another Saturday at Elks Lodge 2081, 1907 Junction Highway.
“She is very beautiful,” Carpenter said. “I’ve dealt with dogs before, never as trainer, but she definitely has a lot of intelligence, it doesn’t take lot to see that.”
From here on out, Carpenter will learn how to handle Susie, and she’ll absorb his cues, supervised by Doherty.
The new service dog program, Veterans Assistance Dogs of Texas, or VADogs, was started by Kerrville Elks Charities, which was created by the local Elk’s lodge. The charity will retain ownership of the dogs while they are living with their veterans. The VADogs program also is pairing a yellow lab, named O-Olivia, with Kerrville resident John Bencken, who also met his potential partner for the first time Saturday at the lodge. If all goes well, the dog will provide Bencken similar help with his PTSD.
Bencken, who’s in his late 60s, was stationed near Da Nang, Vietnam, in 1968 and 1969 and during the Tet Offensive.
“It was especially scary and traumatizing during the Tet Offensive,” Bencken said. “Even though I was a motor sergeant in a headquarters company, and should have been as safe as anybody, we were between a Navy ammo dump and an Army airfield. It seemed like the rockets were always short for the ammo dump or long for the airfield, and we’d take them right in our compound. The closest one was about 40 feet from me.”
Doherty said O-Olivia may be able to come home with Bencken in April.
“I think the two dogs we have are coming along really, really well,” Doherty said. “These dogs are really one in a million. It’s really hard to find the right dog that is suitable.”
Doherty, a high school math teacher in San Antonio who’s trained dogs for 20 years, has worked with service dogs for about three years, and she’s seen firsthand the difference they can make in a patient’s life. Doherty trained a dog to help a 19-year-old cerebral palsy sufferer who also had depression. After six months with the dog, the mostly bed-bound woman could stand up, no longer suffered from panic attacks when she was home alone and could bend over and get from a wheelchair to her bed. Also, her depression was lessened or eliminated with the dog’s help.
Much of the assistance service dogs lend to their charges is emotional, Doherty said.
“All her improvements were because of the dog,” Doherty said. “Watching these dogs change people’s lives, there’s nothing better.”
The Elks hope the VADogs program has three dogs placed with veterans by May 2014, and five or six more dogs placed by May 2015.
“Every year we will try to increase the number of dogs placed by three,” Doherty said.
VADogs president Jim Keefe said this will be tough because it costs $10,000 to place each dog with a vet. Keefe noted that the U.S. Veterans Administration does not offer service dogs to veterans.
“Elks have a longtime motto: ‘As long as there are veterans, the Elks will never forget them,’” Keefe said. “In talking with folks at the VA hospital, we felt there was a need for service dogs, and the need is not going to diminish; it’s just going to get greater as more of our young folks come home from overseas.”
The organization is seeking donations, which can be made online at www.vadogs.org or by mail to VADogs, P.O. Box 290546, Kerrville, TX 78029-0546.