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Wednesday, Sep. 07, 2011

Nonprofit group pairs service dogs with wounded veterans

- The Bayonet
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FORT BENNING, Ga. — Sgt. 1st Class Anthony Casarez said if it weren’t for his service dog, Harley, he probably wouldn’t be around today.

The Warrior Transition Battalion Soldier is the first from Fort Benning to receive a canine from K9s for Warriors, a Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla.-based nonprofit organization launched in May. The group is dedicated to helping wounded warriors return to civilian life and gain independence by pairing them with trained service dogs.

“She’s helped me a lot already,” said Casarez, who suffered a gunshot wound to the back of his head during a January 2007 firefight in Baghdad. “The doctors prescribed her to me. It’s basically a wheelchair with legs. That’s all a service dog is.”

Brett Simon, the K9s for Warriors director of canine military operations and a trainer, was at the Soldier and Family Assistance Center on Wednesday for its weekly community partner day.

SFAC Outreach Program Coordinator Tony Tolliver said the sessions are aimed at linking WTB Soldiers and families with community-based programs and services that help them as they depart active duty. The informational events normally take place every Thursday.

Simon said his mother, Shari Duval, was the driving force behind the creation of K9s for Warriors and now serves as its president. Her family had worked closely with the Wounded Warrior Project in Jacksonville, Fla., which donated $80,000 to help start the new endeavor.

“We want to help, and we see a need for it,” he said. “We’re teaching the dogs to be good companions for the Soldiers. … Dogs have always been a passion for all of us. My mom really wanted to get out and help Soldiers.”

Simon spent 15 years as a police officer, including 13 in K9 units. He was an Army contractor during two tours in Iraq, working all over the country as a dog handler on patrols, bomb searches and tracking of insurgents.

He said service dogs are a proven aid to anyone suffering a loss of limb, mobility disorders or post-traumatic stress disorder. Canines are trained to specifically adapt to each warrior’s needs, and they become the special aide 24/7.

“The dogs can help with flashbacks or panic attacks,” he said. “They can bring them back to reality in a few seconds just by licking their face. The biggest thing is they help these guys get back to a good quality of life.”

K9s for Warriors works with all service members and various breeds of dogs, Simon said. It’s distributed three animals so far.

The organization wants to supply 24 dogs a year, according to its mission statement. The cost for each placement is about $25,000. Donations are tax-deductible.

Simon said troops accepted into the program travel to Ponte Vedra Beach for a three-week training stint on site. The 1.5-acre property has full facilities and can house up to four warriors at a time.

“Our services are free. The only cost to the service member is travel,” he said. “Once the dogs are assigned, their care and maintenance are the responsibility of the service members. It’s a 24/7 deal once we start.”

The dogs are led through a basic obedience class teaching them about personal space, blocking and other commands. They accompany the service members out in public.

Casarez, who still has shrapnel in the back of his skull, said he’s dealt with a range of issues the past four years, from PTSD and depression to incidents of night terror and on-the-spot aggression. He attended the K9s for Warriors training June 27 to July 15.

“She chose me,” he said of Harley, a Doberman-Manchester Terrier mix. “We sat down, and they let all the dogs out. She came over to me, sat on my lap.”

Today, Harley lives with Casarez, his wife and their 18-month-old daughter in family housing. She goes everywhere with him — to doctor’s appointments, the grocery store, even formation.

If he loses balance, Casarez said he kneels on her. She’ll lean her weight against his leg if a light flickers and triggers a dizzy spell.

“She’s a full-time baby sitter,” he said. “It’s a lifelong process. That’s what I’m learning.”

Seven Soldiers from Fort Benning have submitted applications to K9s for Warriors, Simon said. Two are set to go down to Florida for training in September and October.

Tolliver said no official policy exists for pairing Soldiers with service dogs. Post and Martin Army Community Hospital leadership is developing and reviewing potential guidelines.

For more information about K9s for Warriors, visit www.k9sforwarriors.org.

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