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Mutt Strut to raise money for service dogs for veterans

By MATTHEW RINK | Erie Times-News | Published: October 8, 2018

ERIE, Pa. (Tribune News Service) -- U.S. Army Maj. Michael Clark returned to his Pittsburgh-area home in 2008 after a particularly rough tour of duty in Afghanistan.

In many ways, though, he hadn't yet left combat. Post-traumatic stress disorder and a minor brain injury, among other injuries, consumed him.

"I found it really difficult to get out of bed in the morning and nightmares were keeping me up and preventing me from getting a good night's sleep," Clark said. "And, you know, that affected my ability to go to work, my ability to function, you know, with my family and my friends. And so instead of taking it head on, I tried to keep it in as many veterans do. We isolate. So I isolated myself from my family and my friends because I really wasn't sure how to explain why I was feeling the way I was."

Life, Clark said, "spiraled out of control."

"I was having a hard time finding, keeping employment," he said. "I had a hard time enjoying time with my kids and my kids were always asking me why is dad so sad all the time. And my relationship with my former spouse, it was not in a good spot."

Clark, 42, doesn't know where he'd be today if it wasn't for his employer, PNC Bank, and the Florida-based Guardian Angels Medical Service Dogs Inc. that introduced him to Blade, a 7-year-old German Shepherd. Blade is a therapy dog specially trained to work with military veterans. She was provided to Clark in October of 2017.

"Blade's really helped me find my new normal," said Clark, a program manager in agile transformation for PNC Bank. "She's given me an opportunity to enjoy life again. It's been 10 years since I returned from Afghanistan and this is probably the first time in years where I actually felt complete."

PNC Bank in Pittsburgh has raised $500,000 over the last three years for medical service dogs for veterans. A bulk of the money raised comes from its annual Community Mutt Strut event, which will be brought to Erie for the first time on Saturday.

The family-friendly event includes a dog parade and several other activities. PNC Bank in Erie has already raised enough for two service dogs and is hoping to raise enough for two more. Those dogs will be matched with military veterans living in Erie County who might be suffering from a range of medical issues.

The challenge, though, is the cost. Guardian Angels breeds, raises and provides specialized training to the dogs, which are all German Shepherds, for the first two years of their lives. They can cost as much as $22,000.

To raise money for the project, PNC will hold its inaugural Erie Community Mutt Strut from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 13, at Bayview Park, 606 W. Second St.

An employee in PNC Bank 's Erie region attended a Mutt Strut event in Pittsburgh last year and proposed holding one here. Clark, who will attend Mutt Strut with Blade, spoke in Erie this spring about his experience returning from combat and the impact Blade has had on his life.

"There was not a dry eye in the room," Mary Beth Wilcher, a vice president in the bank's wealth management division, said. "He went through heck and back. That dog saved his life."

(c) 2018 the Erie Times-News. Visit the Erie Times-News  at www.GoErie.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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