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Service dogs help some veterans cope with life after war

CABOT, Ark. (CNS) -- U.S. Navy veteran Dave King's whole world changed when Zack came into his life.

The young Catahoula mix plucked from a shelter already has all the love in the world for his new companion. But when Zack is wearing his vest he has a higher purpose -- he is a service dog in training to help King cope with post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury.

Before King got Zack three months ago, he almost became a statistic -- about 20 American vets a day commit suicide, according to 2014 data from the Department of Veterans Affairs.

"I tried to commit suicide. I stepped out in front of a speeding vehicle and he just happened to stop short and it was a sheriff," he said, adding he was taken to the hospital for help.

King, who was homeless, found A Veteran's Best Friend, a volunteer nonprofit organization and Christian ministry that helps veterans by training service dogs for free through community and church donations and sponsorships of veterans. Volunteers keep the cost down to about $6,000 to $7,000 per dog.

Individuals or groups can pledge $25 a month to sponsor 12- to 18-months of training for a service dog and veteran. For many veterans like King, purchasing a service dog to help him cope with his PTSD and his brain injury, which can cost $20,000 or more, was out of the question.

"Somehow they found the absolute perfect dog for me," said King, who has found housing through the VA Homeless Veterans program. "I have bad nightmares; I'll talk and make noises. From the first night I had him, he'll wake me up from a nightmare. He'll stand there and poke me with his paw."

The organization, based in Cabot, was founded in 2012 and has about 25 volunteers who assist with training and serve on the board of directors. There are currently nine veterans enrolled in the classes that meet once or twice a week depending on the stage in training to prepare the dogs with the necessary skills to serve their owners

All veterans accepted into the class must have doctor-diagnosed PTSD and go through an application and orientation process and home check. While most veterans are hands-on in the training sessions, some dogs are trained solely by volunteers.

Instead of buying from breeders, the volunteers search out shelter dogs or rescues from the Paws in Prison program, primarily Labrador and Retriever mixes, and put them through a series of preliminary tests to see if they have the demeanor and skills to make a good service dog. If a dog is adopted and does not work out as a service dog, the volunteers work to adopt them to a loving family.

At its core, the nonprofit exists to help veterans. But Frances Kirk, a U.S. Army veteran and parishioner at St. Jude Church in Jacksonville, will be the first to say that these dogs, including her lab mix Domino, are more than just working dogs. They are lifesavers and almost every volunteer within the organization has a story to tell about their four-legged companions.

"What the dogs do is give us hope," Kirk told the Arkansas Catholic, newspaper of the Diocese of Little Rock. "They just give us hope and a chance at life again."

Before the afternoon training session Oct. 28, veterans Kirk, Tyler Naramore, director of operations, Carrie Riley, director of logistics, and David Grimm, dog trainer and past principal at the former St. Patrick School in North Little Rock, shared their after-war stories about struggles with PTSD, everything from not wanting to leave the house for years to always finding the "PTSD seat" wherever they go -- a seat with their back to the wall that has a full view of the exits.

Frances explained PTSD as a traumatic event or a series of events that have happened to a person and "their body and mind is stuck in that trauma. ... They're hyper-vigilant, scanning rooftops, hands" and are often forgetful, Kirk said.

Grimm, who served in Vietnam and Iraq for the U.S. Marines and Air Force, had stopped leaving the house and isolated himself so he wouldn't have to hear "I understand" from those who couldn't possibly understand.

"I've had people ask, 'Why don't you talk about your experiences?' And my statement to them is I don't want to put them through what I went through," he said. "But since I have had Ringo, I get out. A year ago, you wouldn't see me in a class like this, the room would be too confining. I've gone to some of my grandkids' games, plays at school. I'm getting out more."

Ringo, a 2-year-old Goldendoodle who was surrendered by his owner, is crucial to calming his fears out in public.

"I'd get really emotionally upset if somebody was behind me," something he and other veterans in the program often struggle with, Grimm said. "So he's trained to, if I'm standing some place, he's looking behind me. I can be talking to you, but I still see him and he will move or alert and then I can see what is behind me."

The dogs are trained to detect stress and will nuzzle, paw, cuddle or actually lead a person out of a place or situation if an anxiety attack is happening. Following Assistance Dogs International standards, the dogs must pass the Canine Good Citizens test, Public Access Test and specific training for PTSD tasks before certification.

"We admit pheromones when we're stressed. They pick up on our stress pheromones and are like, 'Hey, quit stressing,'" said Army veteran Chris Wilson, who does not yet have a dog.

Volunteers like Mardy and Audrey Jones, members of Christ the King Church in Little Rock, help foster and train dogs while they wait to be placed with a veteran. Much of the training revolves around putting the dogs in a variety of situations, locations and with various people and animals to get them accustomed to proper behavior. Although the Joneses are not veterans, they view this volunteer work as a service to God.

"The Bible can be confusing. But I can understand that I am to love. I am to love others and to love is to serve. And to be a service dog trainer, is to serve my fellow man and my dogs too," Audrey Jones said. "One morning I was on my knees saying my prayer and I had one dog cuddled up over here and one dog cuddled up over here and it's like, this is God telling me 'good job.' And then it's like these dogs are God's love with skin on."

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Editors: More information about A Veteran's Best Friend can be found online at servicedog4ptsd.org.
  • Published in Nation

Study puts dollar value of religiously motivated volunteering in the U.S. at $1.2 trillion

WASHINGTON (CNS) -- Can you put a dollar value on religion? 

One Georgetown University researcher has attempted something close to it, releasing findings from a study that says organized religion and behaviors associated with it contribute, by one estimate, nearly $1.2 trillion to the United States.

Brian Grim, of the Religious Liberty Project at Georgetown University, unveiled on Sept. 14 findings of a study he conducted with Melissa Grim, of the Newseum Institute, and which analyzed the economic impact of 344,000 religious congregations, "from Adventist to Zoroastrians," around the country.

Depending on which factors one considers, religion contributes $378 billion, by the most conservative of estimates, and up to $4.8 trillion to the U.S. annually, Brian Grim said of the study sponsored by Faith Counts, a nonprofit organization of religious groups, whose aim is promoting the value of faith.

University of Pennsylvania professor Ram Cnaan, who also is program director for the Program for Religion and Social Policy Research at the school, said at the unveiling of the study that while some may consider putting a dollar value on religion a sacrilege, it's important to point out organized religion's benefits to society to balance out news about clergy abuse, extremism, fraud and other ills that are frequently reported on the news and that involve members of faith communities.

It's also important to consider the benefits of organized religion, the study said, when the U.S. seems to increasingly step closer to a more secularized society, such the one painted in the Pew Research Center study "'Nones' on the Rise," about the growing ranks of the religiously unaffiliated.

Cnaan, who said he is not affiliated with a religion, said he believes it's important to gauge, not if religion is important but how much it is important, in terms of its dollar value to society. That's because churches and other centers of worship benefit society, financially and otherwise, through schools, hospitals, charitable institutions, by providing certain social services and volunteer work that help people in need in their local communities.

Think of organizations, Grim said, such as the Knights of the Columbus, 1.9 million members strong, who have provided help to communities in distress, physically and financially, at a moment's notice.

Given increasing secularism, "think of what would happen if everyone in America woke up like me. I'm not religious," Cnaan said, encouraging others to ponder a society in which the many social and financial benefits of organized religion are no longer there because there are fewer or no church members left. Would others pick up the slack?

Grim said there are organizations that are not faith-based that do good works.

"We wouldn't see the good of society disappearing but it would be significantly less," he said.

William Galston, of Brookings Institution's Governance Studies Program, said the $1.2 trillion estimate Grim offered, is the "Goldilocks estimate," not too high and not too low, but consider what it means to have programs, people and services originating from a religious base that contribute to 7 percent of the country's GDP, he said. That's exactly what the study finds if you go by the mid-range estimate, he said.

"It's a sensible number to use as a baseline for national discussion," Galston said.

Cnaan said in his interactions with clergy and religious leaders, he sometimes finds people who are apologetic. But the study shows that they should be proud and should be a boost of confidence to all communities of faith in the U.S., he said.

"I wish I could have gone to every place and every people and say, 'Be proud, you're part of something very big and very important,'" he said.
  • Published in Nation
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