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America’s VetDogs Soldier’s Walk Saturday, May 15 at TR Park Marina

Students from Oyster Bay and Hicksville are working together to hold the 1st Annual Soldiers Walk on Armed Forces Day, Saturday, May 15. The walk will be held at Theodore Roosevelt Memorial Park Marina at the end of South Street, starting at 8 a.m. The Soldier’s Walk is to benefit America’s VetDogs, a nonprofit group that supplies service dogs to veterans.

The students and their friends attended a meeting of the East Norwich Civic Association where Sgt. Tony Larson, an injured veteran of the war in Iraq and his service dog Tomme met with the public. Mr. Larson, 29, a resident of Minnesota spoke about how his life has changed for the better since receiving his service dog, Tomme.

Kathy Genovese director of development of America’s VetDogs/Guide Dog Foundation said the need is great. Veterans are returning from Iraq with single, double and triple amputations; post Traumatic Stress Disorder; brain injuries; and sleep disorders. Over 32,000 veterans have returned with these multiple injuries. The issue is both national and local. She said the waiting list for VetsDogs service dogs has grown by 20 percent over the last three months. There are 200 on the waiting list. The dogs are trained through the Guide Dog Foundation in Smithtown, but with a special feature. Guide dogs are trained to walk beside their owner; service dogs pull their owner’s for balance. Sgt. Anthony Larson explained the difference with an anecdote.

He said while on a ski trip, at dinner time, early in December in Colorado, he asked a veteran to hold his dog while he went into a bathroom he knew would be slippery with snow melt that would hurt Tomme’s paws. His friend – whose bad leg was on the opposite of Tony’s – was pulled into the dining room by Tomme. “He went to the correct side of the man with leg, hip and back problems. Afterward the man said he felt no pain in his legs, hips and back and a few months later he, too, got a service dog.”

A Long Recovery

Sgt. Larson said he was injured in Iraq in 2005. He was working on the night shift as a maintenance mechanic and had been there about six months. Three weeks before he was to return home, he was involved in transporting wounded prisoners from the hospital to base when a roadside bomb hit the truck. His injuries included his right foot, left eye, broken fingers and various injuries. He was airlifted to Germany and then to Walter Reed Hospital in Washington D.C. for 18 weeks. For the first nine weeks they tried to save his foot but it had a Staph infection and he had to make the decision to have it amputated to save his life. At the time, the 24-year-old was alone, his parents hadn’t arrived at Walter Reed as yet.

For the next nine weeks, he had to learn to live again, he said. Five days a week he had physical therapy.

“Four months after the amputation I was skiing,” he said. There, he was offered a service dog but said, “I never thought of a service dog. I thought, ‘I’m not blind. I don’t need a dog’.”

He said he checked off on a list of independent functions and thought he was doing well: He was dressing, showering, bathing, eating, walking – all criteria that showed he was doing well. “I thought he was crazy but after an hour talking to him I filled out an application.”

Sgt. Larson said the possibilities for help, from a VetDog, is endless. The most important for him is that Tomme helps him to walk; and provides balance; and does retrieval for him, which is very important in that when he bends over to pick something up he falls.

Four months after applying for the dog, he got the phone call he was waiting for, that they had a dog for him. The next step was training.

“I had two weeks of training with the dog and from that my life turned around 180 degrees. I knew what I would do and didn’t have to worry about hurdles.” He had been walking with a cane, since one leg was 3 inches shorter, so he was limping. He said, “The dog makes me walk normally and without a cane – even without him. It also retrieves items like my wallet, keys and cellphone keeping me from “ramming my head into a table.”

Psychological Benefits

Another aspect of having the dog is the psychological benefits – for which the dog needs no training. He said while making a 450-mile trip to Chicago he saw dead animals and garbage along the road and he had a flashback to Iraq. “He picked up on it and crawled across the console and put his head on my lap – like saying ‘you’re okay. Go for it.’ He takes me back to the present. He picks up on depression and comes and pesters me to get off the coach and play with him.”

He said when he is at the state of just channel-flipping, the dog senses it and, “Because of him I lead a better life. I am physically abled more then physically disabled.”

Kathy Genovese said that progress is not without a cost - that VetsDogs needs $2 million. “It takes $55,000 to breed, raise and train a dog.” She said it takes a puppy raiser a year and a half with the dog before it is returned to the Guide Dog Foundation for six to nine months training; then paired with a vet for two more weeks training. Sometimes the training just takes a few days, she said.

Sgt. Larson said sometimes it can take longer if the veteran has brain injuries and takes more time processing information. In that case they go slower and build on what the person remembers and can do. “Vets with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and Traumatic Brain injury can only handle so much. I am active with a mild case of Brain Trauma so my training was shorter,” he said.

Ms. Genovese said Mr. Larson was meeting another veteran from Minnesota who was receiving a dog. Mr. Larson said he was at an airport recently to meet a new veteran who was going to receive a dog. He said the only way he recognized him was through his VetDog apparel. “It was easy to find him in the crowd. He walked in a hunched over manner that showed he was kind of depressed. He suffered from Brain Injury, PTSD and depression. You could see there was something wrong with him. Monday night he got a dog. Tuesday he was standing tall with his shoulders held back and smiling. The night before he tied the dog up and fell asleep. At 3 a.m. he woke up with night terrors: flashbacks to Iraq. His dog picked up on the stress and woke him up. The next day he was joyful. They were together for 48 hours and so quickly were a pair.”

“They give them free,” said Sgt. Larson. “If you are unhappy with a dog, a trainer comes to correct bad behavior or to teach them. If you are unsatisfied, they will find a dog more fit for you. I pay for food, grooming and toys for Tomme.”

That was when in the evening Ms. Genovese introduced Hicksville students Briana, Erica and Meghan who are organizing the walk fundraiser. They plan to do it next in Port Washington, she said.

Currently Sgt. Larson is on a break from school. He is studying to be a prosthetist, someone who assembles prosthesis. “I hope to work for the VA and help vets,” he said.

He lives in Minnesota, where he intends to stay, since it is the home of his family and fiancé. “Minnesota is not the edge of the map,” he joked, “although sometimes it is the frozen tundra.”

Someone asked if before he was engaged, the dog helped him pick up girls. “I never used him for that,” said the sergeant.

Peggy McQuade said to Sgt. Larson, “Thank you for what you did for us in Iraq.” She said she saw the dog with him on the front cover of the Enterprise Pilot and said she thought of the black Labrador in her life, she knew about how wonderful they are. She shared with Sgt. Larson that “he snores when he dreams; and runs and growls in his sleep.” She said her dog was from the Guide Dog Foundation, too, but with a little difference. Hers was “the pick of the litter” and was going back to the breeder, who instead went out of business and she got the dog. She was also there to support our troops.

Need for Funding

Gary Drury asked why VetsDogs gets no government funding? Ms. Genovese said they are lobbying Congress now, and some part of their request may come through. She said the dog, “is like a wheelchair or cane and is used to assist someone. We do get grants from foundations and corporations.”

The VA does pay for services for the dogs – for their veterinarian visits and medication. They don’t pay for leashes or training or food.

There are other dogs trained for combat, said Chelsea Tafarella, a VetDogs development association. She said the military realizes the dogs deserve respect and said K-9 dogs serving in the military receive a rank above their handlers. Currently Sgt. Beau and Budge are in Iraq, assisting an officer.

She said they – VetDogs, a part of the Guide Dog Foundation, are the only program in the USA that trains service dogs. They are located in Smithtown but the puppies are brought up all over the USA. They have 12 acres of land. They use Labrador retrievers, standard poodles and on special request, German Shepherd. Some people have an affinity to the German Shepherd she said.

VetsDogs was founded in 2003, as they saw the need for an overall assistance dog program that would incorporate guide dogs, service dogs, and state-of-the-art mobility devices – especially as our country’s veterans age and as our nation’s wounded warriors return home from active conflicts abroad. America’s VetDogs was created to give veterans easy access to the best services possible to improve their lives. If you would like to donate to them you can call 1-800-548-4647 for information.

Ms. Genovese said they recently provided a 64-year-old Vietnam veteran with a dog. He has macular degeneration and diabetes and they are seeing more of that in the older veterans now.

She said currently there are 200 men at different points in their rehabilitation that need dogs. They also need people to raise the puppies. Most puppy raisers, when dropping off a puppy, pick up another one, she said.

Sgt. Larson said his puppy’s family met Tomme after two years. They recognized him because of white spots on his paws. “They were so elated to see him,” he said.

Carla Panetta of Bayville said she has raised two guide dog puppies. After her youngest entered kindergarten she decided it would be a good thing to do. The dogs traveled with the family on vacations. She said if you are bringing up a puppy and can’t take the dog on vacation, the Guide Dog Foundation will take care of it for the time needed. Ms. Panetta brought a friend to the meeting, Peggy Ricciardi, who is legally blind but works at town hall as a receptionist – with her guide dog Pat, who sat at her feet. Pat is 5 and a half years old, and is her fifth guide dog. Ms. Ricciardi is a graduate of Oyster Bay High School. When she attended the school, there was a system in place for students to walk her to her classes – she had human guides.

The Soldier’s Walk is a rain or shine event and is being sponsored by the History Channel. The check-in and registration is from 8 to 8:30 a.m.; followed by some remarks and at 9 a.m. the walk begins at 9 a.m. The pre-registration fee is $10 and $20 for walk-ins the day of the walk.

Hicksville High School students Briana Labia and Meghan L’Ecuyer; Erika Pietzak of St. Anthony’s; Brooke Mahoski of Oyster Bay High School; and Jessica Commisso of Port Washington High School are chairing the Soldier’s Walk.