Photo By: Ellie Van Houtte/Town Crier
It took Iraq War veteran Jeff Wilson years to realize that he was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder but only minutes to build a healing bond with a furry friend.
In March, Operation Freedom Paws – a nonprofit organization dedicated to assisting vets and others with disabilities recover from injuries – paired Wilson with a rescue dog to help him through his day-to-day challenges.
Wilson, a graphic design student at Foothill College, heard about Operation Freedom Paws through the campus’ Veterans Resource Center.
“I spent a long time looking … looking for a specific personality, and I knew he was the one the minute I saw him,” said Wilson of Lobo, his German shepherd and border collie service dog.
In addition to practical assistance with physical tasks, Lobo keeps Wilson grounded emotionally, he said, noting that a service dog reassures veterans and others with chronic injuries that “somebody’s out there working hard to help you.”
Wilson joined organization founder Mary Cortani on campus last week to educate students about service animals, raise awareness of the group and reach out to veterans who may benefit from a dog at their side.
Healing ‘invisible wounds’
According to Cortani, between 400,000 and 800,000 veterans suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder – and those figures don’t include those with brain or mobility injuries.
“It’s hard to accept you have a problem and difficult to talk to other people about it, really hard,” she said.
Inspired by her experience serving in the military, and marshaling her skill as a K-9 dog trainer, Cortani founded the Gilroy-based Operation Freedom Paws in 2010 to help heal the “invisible wounds” of veterans. Her program pairs shelter dogs with disabled individuals and helps them train their canines as service dogs under the requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act – free of charge.
Private donations, as well as money from fundraisers and grants, cover the majority of the $13,000-per-person program costs. To date, 87 veterans and others with disabilities and their dogs have completed Operation Freedom Paws training.
Although there are other programs that pair vets with dogs, Cortani takes a unique approach to the healing process. Instead of training litters of puppies with long laundry lists of skills, she individualizes the process. After assessing the needs of a new applicant, Cortani and volunteers search for a shelter or rescue dog with an amenable personality and the ability to assimilate the skills necessary for helping the potential owner.
Operation Freedom Paws also provides peer-to-peer training that matches volunteer veterans with new dog owners. During the 32- to 48-week training process, mentor-trainers not only coach trainees in skills, but often bond over their common military experiences.
“Our sense of family and community, in some cases, is stronger than when we served,” Cortani said.
Embarking on the healing journey
The benefits for Wilson and many other Operation Freedom Paws participants are significant, from improved communication with their families to the ability to sleep without the anxiety of an attack at night and feeling less depressed because they are needed by their four-legged friends.
According to Cortani, the process works both ways, not only healing the veterans, but also the dogs, many of whom endured abuse or neglect before being rescued.
“By pairing (veterans and dogs) together, they can begin the healing journey together,” she said. “When the bond occurs, there are immediate benefits.”
In the future, Cortani hopes to expand Operation Freedom Paws, building a permanent training facility, hiring full-time mentor-trainers and establishing satellite locations with canine education units across California and the United States.
“If we could reach 10 percent (of veterans with injuries), we would be doing an amazing job,” she said. “Let’s get our service members in uniform back to being productive members of society.”
For more information, visit operationfreedompaws.org. You can also vote for Mary Cortani as a 2012 CNN Hero of the Year at cnnheroes.com.