In Search of Heroes

This blog tells about our journey from October 19 until November 6 as we drove 6,045 miles to meet Veterans with PTSD and their amazing service dogs. Paul took roughly 5,000 photos of these incredible rescued dogs that are now service dogs and will use them to paint their portraits for our 2014 Calendar "Rescued Heroes"- Veterans Edition

Thursday, November 29, 2012

A Very Special Thanks to the Thoughtful and Generous Avis Crew at the Mpls/St. Paul International Airport


We need to share with you an unbelievable experience we had while looking for a rental car for our Road Trip.  Paul and I were scheduled to leave on our Veterans Trip on Friday, October 19th.  We knew a large part of the expense was going to be gas for this road trip of 5,000 plus miles.  Getting a fuel efficient car was extremely important  so I began calling car rental agencies to see what was available.  What I didn't realize that we were leaving on the busiest fall weekend.  MEA weekend in MN is an extended weekend when all schools are on fall break due to the MN teacher convention. 

I called a couple agencies to hear the same thing "we can't guarantee anything".  With such high gas prices, I started to calculate the cost if we got stuck with a gas guzzler and started to realize this trip might not be "doable" after all.  I decided to call the last rental agency and ask if I could talk to a manager.  Perhaps if they knew how long this trip was and how important it really was to get the right model, perhaps I could talk them into "holding" one aside for us and guaranteeing its' availability. 

So I dialed AVIS and asked to talk to a manager.  Laura, the woman that answered asked if she could help me and I explained our dilemma.   She said "hold on" and I assumed she was getting her manager.  I wish I could remember her exact words, but when she returned to the phone she said something like "I think we can do better than that".  She explained that every fall the AVIS crew at the airport takes on a special project and raises funds for that project.  "WE" were going to be the ones they supported- she said that their crew at the Mpls Airport AVIS liked dogs and they like Veterans.  Unbelievable- she said not to worry and gave me the names of the ones to see when the day arrived to leave. Here is a picture of the crew when we picked up the car.

So, needless to say we were back on track with our plans and cancelling was no longer a possibility.  And better than that, I began to think this trip was "meant to happen" and that thought drove us forward with a stronger sense of purpose.
 
Manager Randy, Paul, Joleen, and Manager Mike
When we got to the Airport AVIS location to pick up our car, they had a very comfortable Toyota Camry ready for us. Here is a picture of Paul, their manager, and two wonderful members of the Avis crew when we picked up the car.

 At the end of our trip we met Laura and her crew at AVIS when we returned our car, not only did they raise funds to cover our 2 1/2 week rental, they gave us over $150.00 towards our gas. Absolutely unbelievable!   


Paul, Manager Ali, and Laura
We took pictures and this one shows Paul,  Laura and another member of her crew.  And also they had a supper bag with the best homemade sloppy joes, gourmet potato chips, fresh buns and treats for our dog Maddie!  We hope to stay in touch with these wonderful folks.  They are one caring group of employees that  do great things quietly.  So let's give them a huge shout out. 
  
So if you think all rental cars are the same, remember the wonderful employees at AVIS and realize that they stand solidly behind their motto "AVIS - WE TRY HARDER"  - never doubt they mean it! 

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Our Trip Back Home - What Did We Learn?


On the way home after our last stop in Albuquerque we had a chance to think back on all the wonderful people we met the past several weeks on the road. 


The most important point we want to make is to the people that might question  if service dogs really make a difference for Veterans with PTSD and TBI.  Based on all we heard and the men and women we met, the answer is a resounding  "YES".  Not only do these service dogs change their lives - they also save lives.  We met several Veterans that talked about thoughts or attempts of suicide in their past.  One Veteran  thought about it daily during a long period in his life when he was totally housebound.  Then he was paired with his service dog and is finally able to navigate his way back into the public. Another Veteran survived his suicide attempt and after much work on his part along with counseling finally was in the position to care for a dog. This service dog enabled him to get out of seclusion and join the world again -now leading a very positive life.

After meeting our first two veterans in Louisville, Paul and I looked at each other and commented "It  can't possibly get any better than those two guys!"  Every Veteran we met with was outstanding.  They were all so polite, well spoken, and above all extremely patriotic .  After hearing about what  each of them had gone through, you could have expected some bitterness.  But instead we found men and women that would do it all again, some who fought to stay in the military, stay with their units and did not want to end  their service.  We also found it so interesting that a high percentage are currently doing some type of advocacy for fellow veterans or want to go into some kind of work or service in the future to improve the lives of veterans.
 
We were so honored to have met each one of them.  Believe me, if these Veterans were examples of today's soldiers, we are all in good hands.  But the culture in the military doesn't allow them to complain and they don't.  They hide their symptoms as they just try to get through each day- losing spouses, jobs, families and hope.   We only wish these Veterans weren't left having to figure out how to survive with such horrible disorders.  We owe them so much more.    Some had been housebound for years before having a buddy or relative or counselor finally suggest a service dog organization.   We thought about all the time they had lost and kept thinking about the thousands of other "wounded warriors" out there trying to get through each day unaware that a dog could be an option.   These young men were the ages of our sons.  They had all gone through counseling, dozens of medications only to find nothing changed.  

How absolutely amazing that these four legged miracles came into their lives.  The interesting thing was that according to the organizations we spoke with, the lives of these veterans begin to change dramatically the day they were introduced to their new service dog.   Some found that their dogs woke them from nightmares on the first night in training. Dogs are absolutely amazing and what they are capable of is unbelievable.

What can we do?  We'll talk about that tomorrow- 

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Theresa and Jax in Albuquerque


Theresa and Jax were the last of the wonderful Veterans we have met  the past several weeks.  Theresa was in ROTC in high school and enlisted as soon as she graduated.  She had hoped to go into a health care career by enlisting and also wanted to travel.  At 18 years old, she wasn't expecting a war and when Iraq heated up she found herself deployed as a combat medic on the front lines. She served 4 years active duty, one year with the National Guard and one year in the reserves.

She worked at the VA hospital and was transferred to the emergency room.  She found herself working in a department where she found triggers and flashbacks everywhere from her past making the job impossible. She was unable to continue.  She found herself more and more isolated at home and trying to deal with multiple symptoms of PTSD as best she could.  One of her counselors suggested that service dogs had been helpful to some veterans and she contacted Paws and Stripes.  Theresa had recently rescued Jax, a boxer that had been found on the street.  She had Jax evaluated by their trainers and he passed with flying colors and their training began.

Theresa was eager for us to know that Jax rescued her.  Today he has made it possible for her to go out in public and has given her the confidence she needs  to move forward with her life.  When I asked her what he does for her she said Jax has an amazing internal clock and makes sure she wakes up at the same time every morning and reminds her to take her medicine.  Theresa also suffers from nightmares and Jax is there to wake her up from them and just his company now allows her to go back to sleep.  Theresa has mobility issues and Jax helps her to stand up.  He helps to reduce her overall anxiety and reminds her when she is getting anxious.  He does reconnaissance when they are in stores and she knows in those situations that he "has her back".  That is a term we have heard over and over from the veterans we talked to- how important it is that service dogs are another set of eyes. 

Theresa was eager for us to understand that Jax rescued her.  Today he has made it possible for her to go out in public and has given her the confidence she needs  to move forward with her life again.  It was great meeting Theresa and we enjoyed the time we were able to spend with this special twosome.   We could only imagine the bravery it took for Theresa to be a combat medic on the front lines.  Today she is finding a way to regain her life. We hope she knows how much we admire her. 

Thanks Theresa for your service and please stay in touch.

Meet Jim Stanek -The Inspiration for Our Calendar


Jim Stanek, founder of Paws and Stripes in Rio Rancho, New Mexico was the Veteran that originally inspired Paul and I a year and a half ago.  We were anxious to meet Jim and Lindsey in person and learn more about their non-profit organization for wounded veterans that works to provide service dogs for PTSD and TBI. 

Rio Rancho and Albuquerque are at the base of the gorgeous Sandia Mountains.  We were to meet Jim and Sarge at a park not far from their office.  We had planned on staying two days in New Mexico but unfortunately we lost a day to weather in Florida.  Thanks to hurricane Sandy we only had time to photograph Jim's dog Sarge and Jax, our very last dog and the service dog belonging to one of their graduates.  Once again we were blessed with beautiful weather to photograph these dogs.

Originally, Jim was an iron worker and volunteer fireman living in Long Island, NY when 9-11 happened.  Immediately he and fellow firemen rushed to ground zero to help.  Because he was under six foot, was strong, and experienced in rescue, he was lowered deep into the rubble to look for survivors.  They worked non-stop for the next 3 months working 22 hour days.  When rescue and later recovery ended, Jim found the closest recruiting office and signed up.

Two weeks after finishing basics, Jim was deployed to Iraq.  he served three tours of Iraq that ended with an injury and eventually he was medically retired.  After nine months in treatment at Brook Army Medical Center in San Antonio, TX,  Jim discovered that the most comfort and relief he found was in the presence of therapy dogs.  They started researching service dogs for Veterans and discovered price tags of $10-$60M for programs with breeder dogs and waiting lists up to five years.  

Lindsey had adopted a dog for Jim and they started noticing this dog was trying to alert him to anxiety attacks, blackouts , etc.  Luckily they found local trainers to work with.  They learned how to fine tune Sarge's skills so that he could help Jim manage his symptoms.  Today Jim is on one medication only and is no longer isolated in his own home.  Sarge reminds him when he begins to tense up, his anxiety level s are down and so are his nightmares.  Because Sarge has his back and can act as his "spotter", Jim can focus on what he needs to do. 


This amazing couple wanted to help other veterans and started the non-profit Paws and Stripes.  Thanks to the success of this great organization, many other veterans, like Jim, have gotten their lives back.  It is the aim of this organization to provide these dogs and training for no cost to the veteran.

To learn more about Paws and Stripes, go to http://www.pawsandstripes.org.  If you want to understand what PTSD and TBI are and how they affect Veterans, watch the video on their home page. It is one of the best I have seen.   In it Jim also tells what life was like before and after Sarge - please take the time to watch it so that you can understand what our Veterans are dealing with. 

Thanks Jim!!

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Leander in the Dallas/Fort Worth area

Leander and Sierra
We met with Leander at River Legacy Park in Arlington Texas.  Once again we were blessed with a 70 degree day under beautiful  blue skies. We keep waiting for our luck with the weather to end and it keeps on going!  This remarkable veteran received his service dog from K9s for Warriors in Florida.  It was a two day drive from Jacksonville to the Dallas/Fort Worth area but after meeting him, we were so grateful we had decided to make the trip!
Leander was in the army 17 years, going in directly after high school ROTC. He was stationed in Washington, D.C. where he worked closely with a couple presidents.  He then left the military, worked in law enforcement before reenlisting because he felt that part of his life was incomplete.  During that training period, he was diagnosed with leukemia. Fortunately it went into remission after he finished chemotherapy, and a few months later he was deployed to Iraq.  He suffered severe brain damage and leg injuries when an IED blew up the Humvee he was in.  He was at Walter Reed a long time, also going through ten knee surgeries- and still suffers from severe headaches and PTSD.

Leander's PTSD has left him with sleeping issues and a lot of anxiety. He told us that he did whatever shopping he had to if possible at night time to avoid people and crowds.  Then he found out about K9s for Warriors from Richard and he applied for the program and was able to be paired with Sierra. Sierra is a beautiful small golden retriever that was surrendered by her owner that had to relocate to New York from Florida. Luckily she ended up with K9s for Warriors and was in their training program- later finding her way to Leander. Sierra has been a real blessing to Leander who said she has "given him back his freedom."  I asked Leander how he knew she was the right dog for him during his training with Sierra in Florida.  He said that the third night there, she woke him from a nightmare.  She wakes him from nightmares, will circle to warn him when he is under too much anxiety and helps him manage other symptoms.  


Today Leander works for Delta airlines today and is the first employee with a service dog.  Watch my FB page and we'll post the wonderful public service announcement that Delta has made about this partnership.  He also travels as much as he can promoting K9s for Warriors. Here is Leander and Sierra during their training in Florida and one of them at Ground Zero in NY. 




He told me about the time after they came home to Texas when she saved his life.  Sierra does not bark- at least hardly ever.  But one day when he and Sierra got home from work, he started to feel ill.  Sierra started barking and barking at him and he remembered what Brett, the trainer in Florida had told all the Veterans training with dogs.  Brett  said to listen to your dog.  So he called his girlfriend (now fiancĂ©) and told her about the strange way Sierra was acting.  She came over, found Sierra still barking and by then Leander was really feeling sick and she took them to the emergency room.   Leander at age 41 was having a heart attack.  Amazing-  so Sierra has literally saved his life and is continuing to change his life every day.

Sandi Capra, development director for K9s For Warriors, suggested that it was well worth the two day drive to Dallas to meet these two amazing Veterans.  She was so right!  

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Ryan and Spirit in Jacksonville


After we finished Bella's photograph's in St. Augustine, we stayed and met Ryan at the Light House with his service dog Spirit.  We walked across to the yacht club where we found a perfect location for Spirits photographs. Afterwards we went to Aunt Kate's -  a casual restaurant in St. Augustine and sat on their deck overlooking the water as we had lunch and got to know Ryan. Ryan was very special to us because he was from Minnesota- specifically Winona. 
Ryan  went into the Navy in August 2002 and has been serving a little over 10 years.  From June 2010 to July 2011 he was stationed at Guantanamo Bay- a total of 13 months.  The military today does not allow anyone to serve over six months at a time there because it is extremely taxing  mentally. Unfortunately for Ryan that restriction wasn't in place during his service. 

Ryan is active still serving in Jacksonville. Like John (Daisy's owner) he became isolated  finding few peers in his Naval ranks that understood his symptoms. Because of the nature of his symptoms he just stayed home after getting through each work day. He told us he became an expert at ordering everything he needed online so he could avoid going out. He also told us that even when he was able to get back home on leave that he didn't feel "safe" at family gatherings-showing just how bad his anxiety levels were.

Luckily he was able to start with a volunteer program at K9sForWarriors and discovered how therapeutic it was just being around the dogs. Noticing this, Shari Duval was able to find him a spot in their schedule of veterans so that could begin training with his own service dog.  Spirit, a wonderful Black Lab was not originally chosen for him, but ended up being the perfect dog. Meg Kuchar, mother of PGA golfer Matt Kuchar helped raise the puppy and kept in close contact with Ryan during and after his training with Spirit.  She took great pride in the role in providing this service dog for Ryan. Here is a picture of her with Spirit as a puppy and Spirit (below) as a puppy training with other dogs at the wharf. 






Ryan told us that the first 2 weeks of training got him out more into the public than he had the past several years.  After trying everything to manage these terrible symptoms of PTSD from counseling to biofeedback, finally Spirit was the answer to get him back into life.  Ryan is doing well now- in fact he and Kevin (Bella's owner) who trained in the same class at K9's decided to go to a concert together and were successful. He thought his concert days were over. This picture below is of Ryan and Shari Duval.

Soon his time serving with the Navy will be over.  Because of his personal experience and the radical improvements in his own situation,  he wants to assist other Veterans get their own service dogs.  And best of all, he wants to come  back to Minnesota after he receives the training that will allow him to change the lives of others. We were thrilled with this news, aware that MN has over 14,000 Veterans with full blown PTSD- some, of course, that would benefit from the help of a service dog.  

We look forward to continuing this story with Ryan and hope to work together to find a way to bring more service dogs to veterans.  Ryan is someone very special and we are confident he will succeed with his dream to help his fellow Veterans.  Thank you Ryan!!!

Kevin and Bella in St. Augustine, Florida



Paul and I met Kevin, his wife Lisa and Bella at the St. Augustine Light House. We found a perfect spot to take Bella's pictures on the front porch of the Light House keepers home.   It was a gorgeous morning the day after hurricane Sandy moved up the coast and the skies were blue.

Kevin and Bella, a beautiful 10 month old golden retriever, had just graduated from K9sFor Warriors. Bella had been purchased as a puppy by three women who had to reluctantly surrender her and chose K9s for Warriors. She went for four months of training before being assigned to Kevin. Although they had only been together a short time, Bella had already made a significant difference in Kevin's life.

Kevin had gone into the army in 1988 going straight to jump school after basics and became a specialist in long range reconnaissance, came out in 1991 and like others, felt the calling to go back in after 9-11-2001. He was sent to Iraq, injured several times, requesting each time to be returned to his unit. 

Kevin was diagnosed with PTSD in 1990 and had battled symptoms without success until being matched with Bella some 22 years later. The day he arrived at K9s For Warriors, Kevin said is a time he'll never forget.  Amidst all the people and dogs in the yard, Bella ran right directly up to him as if she knew they were meant for each other. Kevin said the training was fantastic, putting he and Bella and the other warriors in their class into every environment to test out different situations. By the way Kevin told us that the three women that surrendered Bella, came to their graduation.

Today Bella is always there to help with his anxiety's, helps him with crowds and forces him to talk to people. He said because Bella is so beautiful, people just want to know their story and he is getting used to telling it. She is always there to remind him to calm down, keeps his nightmares "at bay" and constantly watches his back and gives him "cover".

We learned so much from this wonderful couple that morning and can't thank them enough for being so generous with their time.  We also really enjoyed our time with them and hope we can stay in touch. This is one of those situations when we just marvel at the difference that is made so quickly when a service dog is brought into someone's life.  It is truly amazing.