Nonprofit's service dogs aid military veterans

By ELIZABETH CAMPBELL | Fort Worth Star-Telegram | Published: February 20, 2013

John Oldham cannot forget the images of a small boy stepping on a Russian land mine in Afghanistan, or of his best friend dying.

After the staff sergeant left the Air Force in 2011, his post-traumatic stress disorder became so severe that he rarely left home unless accompanied by his wife, and he spent little time with his children.

But in November, Oldham's life was changed by a small black lab mix named Duchess.

Duchess is a service dog that senses when stress is overwhelming Oldham.

"Prior to having my dog, I wouldn't go upstairs to see my kids," Oldham, 42, said recently while sitting in a Denton Cracker Barrel while Duchess lay quietly under the table.

"I used to get very, very antsy. I didn't like going into shopping malls or places like this. I still have problems going through checkout lines," even when Duchess is with him, Oldham said.

Oldham got Duchess from Patriot Paws, a Rockwall-based nonprofit that trains service dogs for disabled veterans. Founded in 2006, the agency has placed 50 dogs with former service members, and 57 additional veterans are on a waiting list.

Each dog's training is customized to fit a veteran's specific needs. The dogs are free for the veterans, but it costs $20,000 to $30,000 to train and care for a dog.

Dogs can be trained to open a refrigerator and take a drink to an owner who can't do that. They can pull a wheelchair, or help put laundry in a washing machine.

The dogs are also taught to sense when their owners -- many like Oldham dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder -- are feeling stress by picking up on chemical changes in their bodies, said Valerie Fry, who trained Duchess for Oldham.

"Veterans are used to being around their battle buddies," Fry said. With a dog, "they come back into society and know they will have someone watching their back."

Hard work

Patriot Paws was founded by Lori Stevens of Rockwall, who says she did so to honor her father, who served in the Air Force in the late 1940s. He died in 2003.

Stevens had experience working with service dogs, but the clients were from more conventional situations. She said she knew that giving veterans new comrades-in-arms would work, and she knew what it would take.

"I've seen veterans go from taking 18 prescriptions a day to taking almost no medications. I've seen veterans locked in their rooms who are now playing in the park with their children after getting a dog," she said.

Her first dog for a veteran was a yellow lab named Harley Davidson that she trained for Clay Rankin, then living in Colorado.

Rankin served in the Army in Iraq in the early 1990s, and again in 2003.

During the Gulf War, he was exposed to sarin, a nerve agent used in chemical warfare, which caused him to lose the ability to sense when he is hungry. Now, Harley alerts Rankin when his blood sugar is low and he needs to eat.

On the second tour, Rankin broke his back and has difficulty walking. Harley makes it possible for Rankin to get around without his wheelchair and scooter, but he said he keeps them nearby for when he needs them.

Rankin and his wife recently moved to a home near Rockwall because of his job as an import specialist at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

"I wouldn't be at work if it weren't for my dog," he said. "I can continue to serve my country."

Rankin was so pleased with his dog that he began to spread the word about Patriot Paws.

It wasn't long before Stevens had a long list of veterans, some in very challenging situations, who wanted dogs.

Backup is building

With each dog's education lasting 18 to 24 months, and the requests backing up, Stevens recruited volunteers to take puppies into their homes and teach them obedience and also how to behave in public places, such as grocery stores or offices.

"We try to think of places where our veterans go," Stevens said.

The puppies live with volunteers for three to five months before they are returned to Patriot Paws for more formal training.

Debbie Bringhurst, a volunteer from Keller, is about to raise her 10th puppy for Patriot Paws. She read about pet therapy and wanted to get involved.

She described hearing the veterans' stories.

"They give the vets courage. You know [the dogs] were born for a much greater purpose," she said.

Patriot Paws has been certified as a career program for women in the state prison in Gatesville. The inmates learn to train the dogs and also learn record-keeping and other skills associated with dog training.

Inmates are allowed to take the dogs to stores and businesses in Gatesville to get the dogs used to being out in public.

Some of the inmates have gotten jobs training dogs after they left prison, Stevens said.

The recidivism rate for women in the program is low; only one of the 47 inmates involved with Patriot Paws has returned to prison, she said.

Fry was one of the inmates. She served 81/2 years for aggravated robbery but was released in May and has been hired by Patriot Paws as a trainer.

Her father, a veteran, died while she was in prison. Fry said she vowed "not to go back to that life."

"I was blessed to be hired and I found my passion in life, working with veterans and animals," she said.

A continuing journey

Juan Amaris grew up in Colombia before becoming a U.S. citizen and joining the military to serve his adopted country.

He was in Iraq, assigned to assist in shutting down a military base, and was helping Iraqis move equipment to another location, when he became suspicious about people standing around a truck. Amaris went to investigate, the truck exploded, and he was set on fire.

He lost both hands and was burned over 73 percent of his body.

Now Amaris leads a semi-independent life because of his dog, Sandy, who is even trained to unzip Amaris' pants so that he can use the restroom without help.

Oldham said he joined the Air Force when he was 31 after several years in the Navy Reserve. He did a tour in Afghanistan from 2004-06 and then was assigned to Turkey until 2011 when he left the service as a staff sergeant. He said he's waiting to be approved for medical retirement.

After waiting 18 months for Duchess, Oldham said, she has changed his life. He recently completed a master's degree in emergency management and is working on a second degree. He hopes to find a full-time job.

Before getting Duchess, Oldham worried about the stigma of having a service dog -- he thought they were for people with "disfigurements."

People sometimes stare, wondering why he parks in a handicapped space or takes his dog in to a store, he said.

But, Oldham said, he realizes that his new mission involves moving forward with his life with help from Duchess.

"People need to realize that we are human beings. We've just been affected by what we've seen," Oldham said.


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