PITTSBURGH (KDKA) – Six Pennsylvania veterans, struggling with life after war, now have new freedom. They just returned home from Florida, where they were paired with highly trained service dogs.
The veterans traveled to a facility called, Guardian Angels Medical Service Dogs, in Williston, Florida. It’s a tranquil 35-acre farm, where at any given time, there are between 70 and 80 dogs, mostly German shepherds, at various levels of training. The animals are eventually paired with people battling a wide range of mental and physical disabilities.
“Everything we do comes from the heart. This is not a job, this is a passion. It is something we eat, sleep, and breathe 24/7,” said Carol Borden, Founder of Guardian Angels Medical Service Dogs.
Borden founded the organization in 2009, but her love for training dogs started more than 50 years ago. She eventually realized her life’s calling was to raise and train service dogs.
“To see the dramatic changes so quickly in our recipients is my greatest reward,” said Borden.
Many of the recipients at Guardian Angels, from all over the country, are veterans scarred by war.
Six men from Pennsylvania just made the trip south, thanks to Life Changing Service Dogs for Veterans. It’s an effort launched by Tony Accamando, a local Vietnam Veteran and owner of Veterans Cable Services.
Last fall, Accamando set out on a mission to raise almost $500,000 to pair 22 local vets with dogs. The number 22 is significant because according to the Veterans Administration, an average of 22 veterans commit suicide every day.
“I could have killed myself many, many times. I felt empty, lonely, depressed. I take so many drugs and they depress me,” said Joe McQuade, a Vietnam veteran from Monroeville.
McQuade, like so many Vietnam veterans, says being deployed changed him.
“Inside of you, you die because you’re not afraid anymore,” said McQuade.
McQuade says returning home was difficult. Now, at the age of 65, Joe is getting a new chance at life. He’s one of the six just partnered with a service dog.
“We went back to the motel, I slept for the first time since 1969, truly honestly through the night, no terror, no nightmare,” said McQuade.
All of the vets had similar instant connections with their animals. Larry Debar, a veteran from Homer City, suffers with mobility issues, PTSD, depression, and anxiety.
“I always had a fear of when people walked up behind me, when they get too close, I start panicking, the anxiety kicks in,” said Debar.
In just days, Shiloh was able to help. In public places, the German shepherd actually positions herself between Larry and other people.
“She’s doing her job, she’s keeping me calm,” said Debar.
Bill Fennell is a Vietnam vet from Carnegie. His dog, Faith, actually detected anxiety during our interview and jumped up immediately. Faith reacted exactly the way she was trained to.
Before the pairings, the dogs go through about 1,500 hours of extensive training, which takes about two years. It begins with the basics of socialization and advances from there. The animals learn specific tasks based on the needs of the recipient. Some dogs alert their partners before panic attacks and night terrors. Others go as far as to retrieve medications.
“This is like a beginning, a new life for me, this is really a new start for me,” said Fennel.
“I think I’m going to be a better person coming home. I’m finding myself wanting to be there again,” said Regis Winterhalter, a veteran from Freedom.
“These dogs are our guardian angels now,” said Mitchell Baldwin, a veteran from Harrisburg.
It costs $22,000 to train a dog. Several Pittsburgh groups and businesses, like the Pittsburgh Foundation and PNC Bank have joined in the effort.
There is already full funding for another three dogs that will be paired with local veterans in the fall.