Sitting alone in his wheelchair at the Veteran’s Administration Medical Center (VA) in White River Junction, a Vietnam veteran watched the visiting dog and panicked shouting, “I’m terrified of dogs!” Somehow, by the end of the visit he was smiling and Regan, the therapy dog, was in his lap.
Quechee resident Patt Taylor and Regan – his 4-year-old Golden Retriever who is a therapy dog – visit the VA weekly. In preparation, Patt did a lot of research into therapy dogs, he and Regan took obedience classes and went through a rigorous evaluation process for Regan’s accreditation through Therapy Dog International. As Patt explains, they both find working with the vets to be “extremely rewarding.” Patt has tied this experience to the work of the Friends of Veterans; the group is linking service dogs with military veterans.
Friends of Veterans
The Friends Of Veterans is a non-profit all-volunteer organization of about 15 individuals – many of whom are veterans – dedicated to preventing homelessness in the veteran population in Vermont and New Hampshire. For almost 30 years, Friends of Veterans has helped veterans in Vermont and New Hampshire get and keep a place to live, working closely with the Veteran’s Administrations in White River Junction, VT, and Manchester, NH, as well of other agencies. About 70% of the Friends Of Veteran’s funds go toward rental and mortgage assistance. Other areas of support might include home repairs to ensure livability, fuel assistance, or car repairs to support a veteran’s ability to work and pay housing expenses.
Within the past three years, several Quechee residents have joined Friends Of Veterans and brought some new skills and energy. In addition to Patt are Gary Davis, Pat Davis, John Ferney, Bob Hayden, Paul Marinelli, Dave Morris, Ed Smoragiewicz, Brian Tart and Eileen Von Gal. They – along with the other volunteers – staff an office in the Gilman Office Center in White River Junction where the intake/case work and agency coordination takes place. Bob Hayden describes his experience with Friends Of Veterans with enthusiasm, “We are passionate about helping. When you have a vet who is living in a truck with his family with small kids, and we can help find them a place to live, work with the landlord and get a down payment made, it is a big deal – we are an advocate for the vet. Eileen Von Gal is a “bird dog” when it comes to finding funds, and it shows. In 2016, we had contact with 250 vets and were able to help over 100 of them with funding of over $90.000. That compares to total funds distributed in 2012 of $28,000.”
Expanding the availability of service dogs
So what does Regan have to do with all this? Last year, Friends Of Veterans started to think about what else they could do to combat homelessness and decided to look into supporting the use of service dogs. Patt tells me that studies have shown a strong correlation between Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and homelessness. There is also research suggesting that the presence of a service dog improves function in people living with PTSD. The Friends Of Veterans is now working with several service dog organizations – primarily America’s VetDogs – to help veterans with PTSD get and support a service dog.
PTSD is a condition that may occur in response to a traumatic, life-threatening event – such as military combat. PTSD often involves great distress and difficulty handling normal daily activities. Symptoms include reliving the traumatic event (nightmares and flashbacks), avoiding situations that are reminders of the event, negative beliefs and feelings and feeling “keyed up” (hyperarousal). Each person experiences these symptoms in their own way. Coincidentally, the VA in White River is home to the National Center for PTSD.
Of course, the service dog who can assist a person experiencing PTSD must be well trained and certified. “Much of the training is done in prisons by inmates who are trained by master service dog trainers. The dog begins training at six weeks old – staying at the prison during the week – and has to learn more than 100 commands. It can take up to 18 months to train a dog,” says Patt. According to the America’s VetDogs website, it costs over $50,000 to breed, raise, train, and place a dog.
Although the VA covers some of the expense of using a service dog for physical disabilities, there is no coverage for veterans with PTSD. So other funding is required, and the Friends Of Veterans is helping to coordinate and meet that need. They hold an annual golf fundraiser at Baker Hill in Newbury, NH. In addition to the support of businesses, individuals and charitable organizations, a major donor to the Friends Of Veterans is the Red River Charitable Foundation in Claremont, NH, whose mission includes support for U.S. military vets transitioning to civilian life. Working together, the Friends of Veterans and the Red River Charitable Foundation recently provided $7,000 to America’s VetDogs. The Red River golf tournament held on July 13 at The Quechee Club supported the service dog and other veterans programs including a heating assistance fund.
In 2009, Congress passed the Franken-Isakson Service Dogs for Veterans Act, which established a program to study the benefits to veterans – particularly those with PTSD – of service dogs. The inspiration for this Act was Luis Carlos Montalvan, a former Army captain in Iraq. His book, Until Tuesday: A Wounded Warrior and the Golden Retriever who Saved Him, tells the story of his struggle with PTSD and how his service dog, Tuesday, helped him cope. This is recommended reading!
The latest service dog placement for the Friends Of Veterans was announced in August. The Red River Charitable Foundation and Friends of Veterans agreed to jointly fund the final phase of training for a service dog for a New Hampshire veteran severely injured by an improvised explosive device (IED) in Iraq who is confined to a wheelchair. They are involved in coordination of the unique training needs of the vet, his combat casualty nurse, and the White Mountain College for Pets. Very exciting!
As members of the National Guard Reserve continue to be called to serve in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Friends of Veterans expects to see a continuing need for the service dog program – both Vermont and New Hampshire have very active National Guards, and there is a large veteran population in both states.
We salute Tuesday and Regan, our Quechee neighbors and all those who work in support of our military veterans at home. And thank our veterans for their service wherever they are.
By the way, the Friends Of Veterans is always looking for volunteer help. As Bob says, “Many hands make for light work.” If you are interested in volunteering – you don’t have to be a vet –visit the website at www.fovvtnh.org or contact Bob Hayden at 802-299-1354 or Patt Taylor at 802-236-0042.