Unlikely Group Trains Service Dogs for Veterans
Patriot PAWS Works with Female Inmates to ‘Make a Difference’
PEARLAND, Texas - Cash can fetch and give “puppy” eyes like any other dog, but spend just one minute with Cash and retired U.S. Army Sergeant Javier Negrete, and you’ll see why Cash is no ordinary dog.
“This dog has changed my life,” said Negrete, who now lives in Pearland. “Since I’ve had Cash, my life is just a completely different story.”
However, a car crash during his week visiting home left the him paralyzed, and a severe brain injury altered his speech. Negrete was in a wheelchair and suffering from serious depression.
Until he met Cash.
“I’m not the guy in the wheelchair anymore,” Negrete said. “I’m the guy with the cool dog.”
“Cool dog” Cash is a service dog that is specially trained to work with disabled veterans by the non-profit group Patriot Paws. Cash goes wherever Negrete goes. She can fetch the phone, get a bottle of water out of the refrigerator, or retrieve almost anything else Negrete needs.
Cash is part child, part companion, part caregiver, but more importantly to Negrete, the dog is all about love.
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Veteran Jason North and Parole
Army Staff Sergeant Jason North of Killeen, TX, suffers from epileptic seizures brought on by a traumatic brain injury he received on October 22, 2008, during his second tour in Iraq. When the Humvee he was riding in fell into a pit trap after being lured to it by several Iraqis on horseback, Jason was slammed into both a 50-caliber machine gun in front of him and a 50-caliber ammo can behind him leaving him with a fractured face and broken vertebra and his first seizure. He must now take seizure medication daily and is 100% disabled. Jason depended upon his wife and even his young daughter at times to help him, so when he found Patriot PAWS on the internet, he decided to apply.
In March, 2012, Jason received Parole, a male yellow Lab. Now when Jason has a seizure, Parole alerts Jason’s wife and keeps Jason calm, something Jason no longer has to burden his daughter with. Parole also helps out with many everyday chores and makes Jason’s life easier. According to Jason, “Parole has done so much for us”, and when asked to sum up Parole in one word, Jason responded, “Incredible!”
Staff Sergeant Keith Campbell and Star
Army Staff Sergeant Keith Campbell of Leesville, LA, is still active duty after 19 years of service. He served two tours in Iraq and one in Afghanistan and was wounded by an IED on his second tour in Iraq. Keith suffers from post-concussive syndrome, migraines, a herniated disc in his back and PTSD. He heard about Patriot PAWS through the Army Wounded Warriors program and decided to apply. In March, 2012, Keith received Star, a female yellow Lab donated as a puppy to Patriot PAWS by the Order of the Eastern Star. Star helps Keith with routine everyday chores such as the laundry, brings him his phone, picks up dropped items so that he won’t have to bend over and helps him get up and down. Keith wanted a service dog in part to help him with his social skills, to deal with stress and for companionship since he lives alone. Keith says, “She sleeps with me, so now I have better dreams. If I move about in my sleep, she will snuggle up to me and put her head on my chest.” Service dog and companion, Star truly is a star in the life of Keith Campbell.
Layla Sauer is a young college student who, like all college students, is struggling to earn a degree and achieve her independence; however, Layla is doing it from a wheelchair.
Layla suffers from cerebral palsy and contacted Patriot PAWS for a service dog to help her. Help was given in the form of a black Lab named Rockxi. Rockxi assists Layla with transferring to and from her wheelchair, opening doors, picking up dropped objects and countless other things that are difficult to do from a wheelchair. Rockxi has also given Layla confidence in her abilities by lessening the impact of her disability. Now that she has Rockxi, Layla hopes to move out of the dorm to a place of her own, achieving a level of independence that she has never had.
Connie Rendon is a happily-married mother of two sons who, in 2003, was working for L-3 in Corpus Christi, Texas when her Army Reserve transport unit out of Beaumont was activated. Connie was stationed at Camp Anaconda sixty miles north of Baghdad in the Sunni Triangle as part of Operation Iraqi Freedom.
Late on the night of September 8, 2004, on the way back from delivering supplies to Taji, Connie noticed that her driver, a 19-year-old soldier, was very tired, and she offered to take his place. He agreed, and Connie took the wheel. Soon after, there was a sudden flash of light and a loud explosion. They had driven over one of six IEDs (improvised explosive devices) that had been in the road. The truck veered off into a field and finally came to a stop. The young soldier was dead, but his body had shielded Connie and saved her life.
Connie could see that her right hand was almost amputated, dangling from a tendon, and her left hand was badly broken. There were also pieces of shrapnel in her shoulder. She began to walk towards the road, holding her hand against her chest, thinking only of the possibility of stepping on a land mine. After what seemed like a long while, a Humvee appeared, and a soldier jumped out yelling for a medic. The medic reached up and pulled the skin of her chin down from over her nose. Connie had been unaware that her face was also badly injured. A helicopter was called and soon arrived to take her to safety.
After seven days, Connie woke up at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, DC. She had no memory of the time that had lapsed and could not speak but was elated to look up into the eyes of her husband and father. The doctors had managed to save her right hand, although it is permanently immobile except for the index finger. Her left hand was in a cast and has a metal plate in it. Her jaw and the bones on the right side of her face were fractured. Her right hand was sewn to her groin to heal. The saliva gland on the right side drained into her face and had to be drained with a needle. Her mouth had to be cranked open with a vice-like tool. It took a very long time for Connie to be able to look at herself as she faced the first of more than forty surgeries. She was transferred to Brooke Army Medical Center for her care and for speech therapy at Audie L. Murphy Memorial Veterans Hospital, both in San Antonio, Texas.
Connie has been diagnosed with nerve damage in her legs, sleep disorder, traumatic brain injury, PTSD (post- traumatic stress disorder), back pain and severe headaches. She is working again for L-3 but not on the flight line as she did before. Her husband works nights, so Connie wanted a service dog to keep her company at night when she is alone and can’t sleep, to help her with things she can no longer do and to give her confidence to go out in public again. Connie and her husband planned to renew their wedding vows in April, 2011, and her wish was to have her dog by then to take part in the ceremony. Connie received Blaze, a black Standard Poodle, from Patriot PAWS Service Dogs in March, so Blaze not only took part in the wedding ceremony but went with them on their second honeymoon to Hawaii as well.
Besides helping Connie with day-to-day living, Blaze is helping her work towards making a new life for herself. Once a physical education teacher, Connie would like to someday work with children again. Before receiving Blaze, Connie never left the house alone except to go to work. Her body is weak, her immobile right hand makes it difficult to open doors and her PTSD robbed her of her confidence to be around other people. Having Blaze now makes it possible for Connie to leave the house. Accompanied by Blaze, she is walking to regain her strength and has the confidence to go out in public opening doors and interacting with people. People see much more than a disabled woman now, they see an enabled woman. Blaze, like all service dogs, is an ice-breaker, a bridge between the public and the disabled. Connie proved her inner strength on a road in Iraq by surviving that which the rest of us can only imagine in our worst nightmares. And now Blaze is helping her to regain her outer strength as well, accompanying her on the road to making her dreams come true.
Veteran Gary Fincher & Memphis
Marine Corp. Sergeant E-5 Gary Fincher served two tours in Vietnam where he received gunshot wounds from which he was fortunate enough to recover. After serving his country, Gary went on to a career as a Director of Admissions and Records at the University level. At age 50, however, he was diagnosed with delayed-onset PTSD and is now 100% disabled from its severity.
Gary lives with his wife near San Diego, California. After being a workaholic working some 60-70 hours per week, Gary struggled with his retirement. He found himself with no responsibilities and far too much idle time. He became isolated, rarely left the house and found it difficult to interact with the public when he did. He felt debilitated but couldn’t explain why. So when Gary heard about Patriot PAWS Service Dogs at his local VA, he realized that he had found a possible source of help. Gary already knew what great service companions dogs can be, so he applied.
In November, 2011, Gary received his service dog, Memphis, a Golden Retriever. Memphis instantly became Gary’s new best friend and fishing buddy. Gary now has the responsibility of caring for Memphis, and together, they get out of the house and interact with the public. Gary suffers from flashbacks and nightmares and can now depend upon Memphis to redirect his attention away from the bad memories and back to the present, something Memphis did for the first time only days after going home with Gary, a testament to the strong bond between service dog and person.
Gary believes that dogs are underutilized in helping people with disabilities and that they can change lives for the better. And that is exactly what Memphis has done…changed Gary’s life for the better.
Veteran Cyle Harris & Mustang
Army Infantryman William Cyle Harris proudly served with the 10th Mountain Division in Mogadishu, Somalia and was a part of the 1994 invasion of Port-au-Prince, Haiti. After serving his country from 1991-1995, Cyle went on to a different form of service by joining the Sherwood, AR Fire Department where he served as a Captain and EMT for 10 years; however, in 2008, he was diagnosed with ALS also known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease.
Cyle’s wife Michelle works away from home part-time which leaves Cyle alone. As his disease progressed, he began having more and more difficulty doing everyday things and knew he needed help. While researching service dogs on the computer one day, Cyle came across Patriot PAWS and decided to apply for a service dog to help him.
In November, 2011, Cyle received his service dog, a yellow Lab named Mustang. As Cyle’s disease progresses, Mustang will become increasingly more important in assisting Cyle with those things he can no longer physically do as well as be there for companionship and emotional support. Mustang already assists Cyle with picking up dropped items, allows Cyle to brace on him to stand up, assists him with undressing, open doors and in general helps him deal with the effects of his disease. Cyle also has choking episodes, and Mustang can go get help or push a panic button if Cyle is alone.
It is said that a picture is worth a thousand words…Cyle’s speech has been affected by his disease and his ability to communicate orally has been diminished, but seeing the bond of mutual love and respect of Cyle and Mustang working together as one communicates much more than mere words ever could.
Major Brent Jurgersen
“There is nothing stronger than the heart of a volunteer” – Lt. Col. James H. Doolittle
This is the quote I first thought of when I had the opportunity to sit down with Sergeant Major Brent Jurgerson. The heart of a volunteer…. He is an imposing figure of a man, built as one would expect a soldier to be, but his physical presence pales in comparison to the character within.
He was no stranger to war for he had been injured before while serving in Balad, Iraq. A bullet penetrated his mouth and lodged in his throat and for many, that would have been the end of their service. Some people would have returned home, recuperated, and gone on to lead normal civilian lives. And that would have been expected. But Sergeant Major Jurgerson had made a promise to the families of the men and women he led in Iraq that he would take care of their loved ones. Knowing he couldn’t stay out of the action and fulfill that promise, he volunteered to go back. And it was during his second tour, on January 26, 2005, while working Recon patrol in Iraq, his world forever changed with an explosion and darkness.
That attack left him an amputee, a disabled American veteran. He will tell you there are thousands upon thousands of men and women just like him and that each and every one of them has a story to tell. He doesn’t want to be the focus of any article, no matter the reason, because he feels there are far too many veterans from far too many wars that have never been heard. And he’s right. But his story, while it may not be unique, is a direct link to Houston. No, not Houston the city, but Houston the service dog given to Brent by Patriot PAWS Service Dogs in Rockwall, Texas.
Sergeant Major Jurgerson had the opportunity to visit Gatesville, Texas to tour the Lane Murray and Crain Units of the women’s correctional facility. It was there, in the confines of metal and brick, that he learned how ordinary dogs became extraordinary service dogs, trained by inmates to eventually become the dedicated worker to a vet. It was there that he met Houston. Houston is an amiable, beautiful yellow lab with a huge heart and a willingness to please. These are traits Lori Stevens, Founder and Executive Director of Patriot PAWS says are necessary in any potential service dog. The instantaneous bond that occurred between Sergeant Major Jurgerson and Houston was obvious, to both man and animal.
And so, many, many months later, I was there while veteran and dog trained together prior to Houston’s departure to live with Sergeant Major Jurgerson. I asked him what he hoped to gain with Houston in his life and he said he hoped to be more independent, that perhaps his loved ones wouldn’t have to worry about his safety when he was alone anymore. And I suspect Houston will offer far more than just independence. Patriot PAWS trains its dogs with 35 base skills, everything from retrieving keys and dropped items to bringing drinks from the refrigerator and alerting someone if the veteran is in need of help. Houston will be greatly missed at Patriot PAWS, but I believe if he could have volunteered to be a service dog, he would have.
Patriot PAWS Service Dogs is a 501©(3) non-profit organization providing service dogs to disabled American Veterans. There is never a charge for the dog so their expenses are, understandably, continuous. It takes anywhere from $20K to $30K to raise and train one service dog and they rely solely on donations and grants to pay the bills. When forming Patriot PAWS, Lori Stevens believed these men and women had sacrificed enough for their country. They deserved to have a service dog and she would not charge a fee. And veterans are not the only benefactor; the inmates who train the dogs have found renewed value and self-respect through their affiliation with this program. If you would like to help Patriot PAWS in their endeavors, please contact them at www.patriotpaws.org or email them at www.patriotpaws.org.
Veteran Tina Holloway & Patty
Army National Guard PFC Tina Holloway didn’t join the Guard until she was 35 years old. While serving at Fort Leonard Wood, MO, she received multiple closed and stress fractures to both feet while marching on ice in improperly fitting boots. The fractures did not heal correctly resulting in nerve damage and severe foot pain and a disfigured right foot which left Tina unable to walk and dependent upon a wheelchair or scooter to get around.
Although Tina’s mother Mary has been and continues to be a great source of help and support to Tina, Tina wanted to be more independent but lacked the ability or the means to do so. One day while on her computer, Tina found the Patriot PAWS website and decided to apply for a service dog to help her.
In November, 2011, Tina received her new service dog, a mixed-breed dog named Patty. Patty was selected from a litter of puppies being offered on a Walmart parking lot and is a great example of the variety of dogs other than pure- breeds that Patriot PAWS trains to become service dogs. Tina’s outlook on life is now considerably brighter than it once was. Patty will help Tina have the confidence she needs to go out in public more and become more independent by being there to pick up dropped items, help her do everyday chores and bring her the phone or go get help if she falls. In fact, Tina says that having Patty will relieve much of the burden from her mother and her whole family in caring for her, something she very much wanted to achieve.
Tina makes her home in the state of Washington and quips that “I love to shop at Walmart, so Patty is the perfect dog for me!”
Veteran Charles Trask & Summit
Charles Trask is a U.S. Navy veteran who volunteered to serve in-country in Vietnam in 1968. Although Charles left the service physically unharmed and went on to become a Salvation Army minister, he was diagnosed 37 years later with delayed-onset PTSD and is now retired and 100% disabled. Charles became a recluse and was unable to deal with anyone or anything, including his wife Toni, until receiving Summit in May, 2011. According to Charles, “Summit has given me a reason for being.” The responsibility of caring for her gets him up and out of the house. When Charles suffers from a flashback, Summit senses it and nuzzles him to redirect his attention to her, and when he has a nightmare, she licks his face to wake him up. Charles uses a cane to walk, so Summit gets the phone for him, picks up dropped items, carries notes to Toni and performs many other tasks to make his life easier. Charles must take a number of prescription medications but says that “Summit is the best medicine of all.”