Veterans find peace with pets - Pets for Vets introduces companions
Alexander Cramer Unified Newspaper Group - May 27, 2018
The nightmares still wake Michael Egner up in the middle of the night.
He was 17 when he “hit country,” landing in Vietnam where he “saw things normal people don’t see.”
Now, when he snaps awake in his bed, unsure whether he’s still in the jungle, Egner said, “all I have to do is reach down and feel for Beanie and I know I’m (home).”
Beanie is Egner’s dog, who came to the veteran through the nonprofit Pets for Vets.
Pat Seidel, director of the Madison chapter of Pets for Vets, told the Observer that the group’s mission is simple: “Rescue a pet and save a vet.”
The veteran doesn’t need to be disabled, Seidel explained, only has to have performed military service.
Seidel, Egner and a couple dozen other veterans, trainers and family members who have been touched by the program gathered in Seidel’s backyard in Brooklyn for a picnic Saturday, May 19.
The event was Egner’s idea, who said it was a “good thing for the vets to see all the other vets” who have been helped by the program.
“A lot of vets kind of clam up,” Egner said. “It’s a first step to connect with other vets who have had these problems. Hopefully, in the years to come, it’ll grow.”
How pets find a vet
Veterans can apply for a companion animal through the program’s website or by speaking to any of the trainers or volunteer staff. Seidel echoes Egner’s sentiment in hoping the program will grow, saying she hopes more veterans in the area hear about it and take advantage of the service.
Once they’ve applied, a Pets for Vets volunteer visits with the vet to make sure their’s will be a good home and fit for a dog and that the veteran will be helped by the companionship.
“The bulk of the work is done by our trainers, who are doing it in their spare time,” Seidel said.
Besides “a few paid positions at the national level,” Pets for Vets is completely volunteer-based and doesn’t have much administrative overhead, Seidel said, a fact that drew her to the organization in the first place.
After a match has been made, the dog is presented to the veteran at a small ceremony that normally includes the dog’s trainer and the veteran’s sponsor, generally the only connection the veteran has to the larger organization.
“Everything we do is at no cost to the vet,” Seidel said, from the dog’s immunizations and microchipping to the smaller necessities like a food bowl and a bed, leashes, toys and dog food. Seidel even makes “doggie-scarves” for all the dogs, which were sported proudly at the picnic.
The cost is important for vets like Egner, who is living on a fixed income and was unable to buy another pet after he lost one of his beloved dogs.
And it’s good for the dogs, too: Egner’s pal Beanie came from a shelter in Kentucky where he would’ve been killed if he hadn’t been adopted, which Egner finds unconscionable.
“There are too many vets who want to take a dog (for that to happen)” he said.
For Bill Stapel, another Vietnam veteran, his dog Buddy helps both physically and mentally.
“They couldn’t get it out of me with talking, so I push it down,” Stapel said, sharing how therapy hadn’t worked for him. He said he suffers from severe anxiety and post-traumatic stress and sometimes has had spells of violence when his memories overwhelm him.
“I had two months of hand-to-hand training (in the military),” Stapel said. “I can still hurt people, old as I am.”
Stapel’s wife Sue said Buddy “keeps Bill on his toes” and walking him three times a day helped Bill lose more than 60 pounds in the six years since Stapel was Pets for Vets Madison’s first recipient in 2013.
When the testimonials got to be too much, Stapel took Buddy for a walk through the garden and around the lawn, creating physical and emotional distance from the event where veterans were talking about how much their pets had helped them, and the experiences that had caused them to need help in the first place.
Dennis Shaw is a Vietnam veteran with a commanding voice and a handlebar mustache to match.
On that Saturday in the Seidels’ backyard, Shaw explained the impact Pets for Vets has had on his life, and the lives of other veterans he’s known. When a fellow veteran choked up with emotion and had to stop speaking to wipe away tears, it was Shaw’s voice that boomed out, “We’re with you, brother.”
“We’ve seen things you can’t imagine,” Shaw said. “These little furballs have no idea what we’ve been through, (but they) bring us that comfort.”
Shaw was matched with one of the “little furballs” named Benji and has since raised money for the organization, organizing a benefit motorcycle ride last year and another this year he thinks will be much bigger.
Shaw talks about the program as “life-altering,” something that he wishes he could tell other veterans who have contemplated suicide, as a number in the crowd said that they had.
“If it wasn’t for Pets for Vets, there’d be more lost souls – a lot more dead soldiers,” Shaw said. “You need that help, brother? We can get you that help.”
*Article taken from http://www.unifiednewsgroup.com
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