Veteran service dog outfit growing

WAVERLY — Tyler Hemingson just came home after four years in the Army and four deployments to Afghanistan. He got a four-legged, tail-wagging "welcome home" by one of the dogs at Retrieving Freedom.

It is a charitable organization that trains and places service dogs with disabled veterans and autistic children. It's growing and looking to expand.

"I just came to see what it's all about. I heard a lot of good stuff about them," Hemingsen said on his first visit to Retrieving Freedom. He's looking for a job and plans to attend Iowa State University next year, but for now, Retrieving Freedom is one more step back into the world and a way to help fellow veterans.

Some veterans apply for dogs, some volunteer to work with the dogs. Some, like Chad Johnson of Shell Rock, do both.

He served 13 years in the Iowa Army National Guard, through deployments in Egypt, Iraq and Afghanistan. He's had counseling and medication for post-traumatic stress disorder. But the best therapy has come from his service dog, Copper.

"If I'm flashing back, processing different situations I've been in, and anxiety's building up, he'll sense it automatically and just do 'paws up' right on me," Johnson said, getting up in his lap, licking his face, tugging his sleeve, and calming him by getting him to play catch with a ball or go for a walk. They also hunt for antler points shed by deer in the woods, just one more activity to stave off depression or self-destructive thoughts.

Johnson also helps out at Retrieving Freedom. "It's given me a sense of purpose, helping other veterans," he said.

Lyle Dean of Dunkerton served in Vietnam in 1968-69. Like Johnson, he suffers from PTSD and also had a leg amputated in March 2012 -- the lingering effects from exposure to the toxic defoliant Agent Orange. His dog, Murphy, does everything from fetching his prosthetic leg to turning on a light when he wakes up in the night when disturbed by loud noises or stress-induced dreams.

Murphy provides Dean with a security buffer from stress he may encounter in public in checkout lines, tight spaces, or when he feels his personal space is being invaded.

"If he (Murphy) feels a need, he'll get between us and keep you apart from me," Dean said.

"He's still working," Dean said of Murphy as he rested, but on the side of Dean's leg, so as to detect any sudden movements. He would be up on a moment's notice at the slightest sign of stress.

Retrieving Freedom matches dogs with individuals according to their needs. A vet may need a more lively dog to keep him active and off depression, while an autistic child may require a more docile animal for a calming effect.

"I would say 90 percent of the dogs are for post-traumatic stress, guys who just need a good companion to go places with," Retrieving Freedom co-founder and president Scott Dewey said. Veterans also are invited to come out and work with the dogs, just to give themselves a sense of purpose. If they find out having a dog living with them full time helps their situation, they will match a dog to a soldier or a child.

"Our job is to leave the door open for you to decide what your needs are," Dewey said.

"The veteran coming out and working with the dogs, they may never smile the whole time we're talking to them, but when we bring the dog out, they're smiling," Johnson said. And they want to come back for more, to work with the dogs.

"The veteran is now having a purpose of coming outside of of their house, coming into the public, coming here, and not feeling like having the anxiety buildup of going out in public, always on guard," Johnson said.

"We've seen on vet sitting here talking to the dog about his problems. A dog won't butt in," Dean said.

Dogs are raised from puppies at donor homes. At about seven or eight months old, they come to Retrieving Freedom for training, utilizing Wartburg College students, even Waverly grade school students, to get them used to dealing with people and the eventual person they are placed with.

Murphy spent time with Wartburg students and second-grade elementary students, Dewey said. The children read to Murphy and improved their reading proficiency. Dean visited the class and they asked him questions about his military service and how his prostheses worked. They also learned they were helping train Murphy to be placed with Dean.

"They learned at such a young age how fun it can be to give back to the community and give back to people in need." Dewey said. "I think we may have changed some lives right there.

"We've got two years to prepare this dog to go with their recipients. We might as well use those two years to the best ability of us and the community to make everyone benefit from these dogs," Dewey said.

He trained competition retrievers for 13 years before starting Retrieving Freedom with friend and client Charles Dwyer.

"Charles Dwyer and I started talking about three or four year ago about the demand and need, especially for returning veterans, for service dogs. There's a long wating list and not many facilities in the Midwest," Dewey said. Dwyer runs a counterpart Retrieving Freedom operation near Senatobia, Miss.

Currently, however, the Waverly operation is feeling some space stress of its own. It operates in about 650 square feet of space. It is looking to build a new 5,500 square foot facility at the same location, with expanded training areas and even lodging for people coming from some distance to work with their eventual service dog on a daily basis.

To that end, Retrieving Freedom has launched a "Thrive Again" facility capital campaign.

The project is estimated to cost $410,000. So far it has raised $178,650 in in-kind material and labor and $163,902 in cash pledges and donations, including $35,000 from the Black Hawk County Gaming Association earlier this month.

Just $65,748 more is needed to make the project happen. Retrieving Freedom is looking for in-kind pledges for framing, drywall and insulation. The new facility will be dedicated at least in part to Iowa National Guard soldier Donny Nichols of Shell Rock, killed in Afghanistan in 2011, whose family donated about $9,000 from a fundraising event for the project.

Donations may be made online at retrievingfreedom.org. Checks should be made payable to Retrieving Freedom, 1148 230th St., Waverly IA 50677.

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