America’s VetDogs: How a Core of Canine Companions are Assisting Military Veterans in our Region
May 01, 2015 12:50PM ● Published by Cate Reynolds
For the fifth year in a row, the Annapolis/Kent Island Run & Dog Walk to benefit America’s VetDogs was held on a spring day, not unlike the spring events of years past. This time, however, event attendance was at an all-time peak—testament to the hard work that several passionate Midshipmen have devoted to organizing a benefit event with the goal of raising awareness and funds for this valuable program, which pairs service dogs with wounded or disabled military veterans. Scores of veterans, their families and friends, and most especially, their canine companions briskly ran 5K, 10K, or walking courses that departed from Kent Island High School in Stevensville (in previous years the event was held at Quiet Waters Park in Annapolis).
After the enjoyable exercise, the day concluded with old friends making new, swapping of stories, hugs, and a salute to those for whom the event honored—America’s VetDogs and the brave men and women who’ve benefitted from the program.
The story of how this local event was developed by the Navy’s finest, how the America’s VetDogs program operates, and for whom the program directly benefits is one of community and caring.
Midshipman Ari Schiff organized the first Annapolis Run & Dog Walk in 2011 during his junior year (2/C) at the United States Naval Academy, but the genesis of his interest in America’s VetDogs preceded that by years. In 2006, as a student at Francis W. Parker High School in Chicago, Illinois, Ari was on a field trip to Colorado where met a Captain in the Marine Corp who was also a pilot. The Captain had been wounded in action and was in a coma for several days after receiving treatment. After a lengthy conversation regarding his recovery, and answering questions about the Marine Corp, he told Ari that service dogs were in high demand. Yet, there was no federal funding for service dog training he explained, so supply simply could not fill the demand.
Upon returning home Schiff thought that raising awareness of this issue and private fundraising would be a rewarding way to help veterans in need of service dogs. In short order, he reached out to the local VFW Post and convinced the Chicago Tribune to run two articles about this need for service dogs. That alone, raised $35,000, and another $15,000 was donated by Schiff’s family and friends. From this seed money, The Ari Schiff Fund for VetDogs was created and has since raised money through various corporate donors, such as Cardinal Health ($120,000). As a result, he became the youngest member of Board of Benefactors for America’s VetDogs.
But it was not until his junior year at the Academy, when he proactively organized the First Annual Annapolis Run & Dog Walk, with the goal that it would continue after his graduation. As Schiff says, “The mission of the U.S. Naval Academy is to develop midshipmen morally, mentally, and physically. Both the moral and physical tenets of the mission were directly applicable to the goals I was trying to meet with the 5K. Midshipmen are inherently physically active people. Additionally, it is every American’s moral obligation to help those who protect our freedom, particularly those who become wounded. Annapolis itself is also a very military-friendly and active city. The combination of these qualities made a 5K seem like the most fitting method of fundraising.”
Along the way Schiff recruited a small group of friends to create a committee, which passed out sponsorship letters and spread the word about the event. In all, he has worked with 10 more Midshipmen, including Will Roberts, who took over after Schiff graduated. Roberts was President of the Class of 2014 and had a large network of Midshipmen who continued to grow the event. Last year, Midshipman Emily Brown shadowed Will, so she would be able to take over this year.
Shiff is now a 1st Lieutenant and serves as the Weapons Platoon Commander in Lima Company, 3rd Battalion, 5th Marines. They returned from deployment last November and preparing for another deployment later this year. But the event he started five years ago has, so far, raised $210,000. Which is enough for America’s VetDogs to support approximately four service dogs during the course of their careers.
Matching the dog to the person is not a matter of chance. The foundation breeds the vast majority of dogs to acquire traits that will match the right dog to the right person. Each dog then works with a raiser, who socializes and house trains the dog, making certain they are in good health and have good house behavior.
It all begins when the Breeding and Development Center picks dogs with the best traits, including health and temperament; looking at the dog’s lineage to breed for the best qualities, and the females only have one litter per year. The puppies’ “bridging” begins as soon as their eyes are open, spending their first year being raised by volunteers. They are given special foods and medical care. At 16–18 months, they return to the foundation for formal training.
The trainers get a “string” of 5–6 dogs and learn their traits and personalities in order to match them to the right person. Most dogs are then placed at 18–24 months of age. The dogs are matched with their veteran based on traits, not because they are next in line. This results in a 95 percent success rate.
America’s VetDogs also provides a lifetime of after-care service. As a veteran’s needs may change, the dogs are retrained. Trainers work one-on-one with the veteran at home and for as long as the veteran and the dog are together, there is regular training, discipline, and yearly veterinarian updates.
America’s VetDogs was started in 2004–2005, as a response to increased requests from veterans asking for guide and service dogs. At the time, it was a separate division of the The Guide Dog Foundation for the Blind, which was originally established in 1946, as a guide dog training school. Over the years, they also provided full assistance and service dogs to veterans of all eras, according to Wells B. Jones, the Foundation’s CEO. In 2007 America’s VetDogs was created as a separate entity, relying solely on private, corporate, business, and service/fraternal club donations; receiving no government funding.
Master Sergeant Mark Gwathmey (USMC, Ret.) of Upper Marlboro was paired with his service dog, Larry, in 2007. He and his wife, Carolyn “CeCe,” like many other veterans and their families, are very grateful for America’s VetDogs for providing Larry to help Gwathmey recover from Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). But, Mark’s story is a little different than most. We usually learn about a wounded veteran who sustained TBI from a single explosive incident. Sergeant Gwathmey sustained his TBI by suffering combat explosions one time too many.
Since joining the U.S. Marine Corp in January 1990, Mark was in combat during Operation Desert Storm/Desert Shield (January–June 1991), Mogadishu, Somalia (January 1994–January 1995), Monrovia, Liberia, Bangui, Central Africa Republic, Bosnia, and Iraq (2003). He has been through small arms fire and RPG attacks that left his head and ears ringing for weeks, and found it difficult to focus at times. In Monrovia and Bosnia he witnessed genocide. He has seen civilians caught in the crossfire of rival tribal clans. And has seen children killed by anti-tank mines. Memories that still haunt many men who served in these areas.
During his years of service, Gwathmey suffered a myriad of symptoms directly associated with combat operations. Having sustained many improvised explosive device incidents (14 in one tour of duty alone), his crippling symptoms included: collapsing and losing consciousness; ringing in the ears; bloody noses and nasal drip; headaches; time loss, in which he would be awake but unresponsive for 5–10 minutes at a time; and, eventually, seizures, hand tremors, numbing sensations, and pain throughout his body. However, doctors in the field were often unable to make specific diagnosis.
Finally, in 2006, Gwathmey was diagnosed at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center with a seizure disorder, PTSD, an anxiety disorder, and sympathetic nerve disorder. A neurologist also determined he had epilepsy. At this point, Gwathmey experienced 5–6 blackouts per day. Yet, he was told it was all psychological and given two hours per week of therapy. Feeling the treatment was inadequate, his wife CeCe wrote to the Commandant of the Marine Corp, explaining that his Marine was not receiving the care and support he needed. Mark was then assigned a brand new team at Walter Reed.
During this time, CeCe read “My Sister’s Keeper” and began researching service dogs. However, Gwathmey refused a dog because “others needed it more” (citing missing limbs). Not until his doctor explained that he can “replace a limb, but not your brain” did it sink in that a dog could truly help his situation.
Within four months (2007), Gwathmey was paired to Larry, an English Labrador and Golden Retriever mix, and the end result has been amazing. Larry picked-up on Mark’s PTSD within three days and his seizures within one week. To help his PTSD, Larry sits opposite Gwathmey and watches his back, so there are no surprises. Larry also wakes him from nightmares by stepping on Gwathmey.
For the first few years, Larry wore a stability harness to help with seizures and Gwathmey’s problem foot. When his legs would shake too much Larry “dragged” Gwathmey to the bedroom. Early on, Larry gave a 10–15 minute warning window when Mark was going to have a seizure. Now, that window is 2–3 hours. He starts by whining. The louder he whines, the worse it will be. If it is going to be very bad, he will start barking. Larry’s presence has given CeCe piece of mind and he provides comfort to her, as well.
For a period of time, Gwathmey could not have been employed. Today, in thanks to a Federal internship program for wounded, ill, and injured service members, Gwathmey works at the Naval Sea Systems Command, at the Navy Yard, as a Disaster Preparedness Specialist.
“Larry has given me my husband back,” CeCe says.
For more information on America’s VetDogs, visit Vetdogs.org.