PITTSBURGH (KDKA) — In a little more than 10 years, an organization called Guardian Angels has donated more than 300 medical service dogs to U.S. veterans. Now, the group is planning a massive expansion in the Pittsburgh region.

“They are an angel to their recipient,” says former state Auditor General Jack Wagner.

In addition to serving as a Pittsburgh City Council representative and six-term state senator, Wagner was awarded a Purple Heart for his service in the Marine Corps in Vietnam.

Wagner is a huge supporter of Guardian Angels because he has seen first-hand what the service dogs do.

“They actually save lives. Veterans have a suicide rate of twice that of the general population. Guardian Angel Medical Service Dogs has provided over 300 dogs. There has not been a single suicide,” Wagner said.

Three-year-old German Shepherd Spangle was matched with Dustin Schneider after his 14-year career in the U.S. Army abruptly ended. He was in his fifth tour of duty with stops in Bosnia, Iraq and Afghanistan.

(Photo Credit: KDKA)

“I was injured in my last tour,” Schneider told KDKA’s Rick Dayton. “I was in a roadside bomb explosion, so medically, I could no longer perform all of my military duties as needed.”

Before he knew it, Schneider was back in the States with no job. Because he enlisted right out of high school, he hadn’t gone to college. Needless to say, enrolling in college and going back to school was not easy.

“It was very hard for me to transition because I was in an environment where I was dealing with professionals all the time to go to college dealing with 18- and 19-year-olds,” he said.

Yet it was more than the rigors of getting a university degree. It was about being out of the military and back in civilian life.

“I would have a hard time talking. I would have a hard time being out,” Schneider said. “I am normally a very forward-thinking person. I like to get out and try to do things, but I just found it easier for myself to lock myself away.”

WATCH: Dustin and Spangle on PTL —


 

The explosion that knocked Schneider out of the Army left him with concussions and Traumatic Brain Injuries. He also suffers from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. A friend who was a Marine told him about the process of being matched with a medical service dog. A year later, Schneider is one of more than four dozen veterans in the Pittsburgh area receiving help from a Guardian Angel dog.

“We have already placed 40 to 50 dogs in the Pittsburgh region,” says Wagner. “Another 12 to 15 [will be placed] within the next year. Pittsburgh has been a great supporter. Pittsburgh has been a great supporter of this cause.”

Now, Guardian Angels has bought 102 acres in Allegheny and Washington County. The land is near the Montour Trail near McDonald, Pennsylvania. There the organization will build a second campus complete with 14 buildings. It will be similar to their 35-acre facility in Florida that has been their base for more than 10 years. Pittsburgh will be a second place for Guardian Angels to breed and train dogs for veterans like Schneider. It will double the number of dogs they can provide each year – dogs that cost about $25,000 each before they are ready to go home with a veteran.

Schneider says it is worth every penny.

“My injuries you can’t really see from the outside, but she [Spangle] helps me deal with them on the inside, and allows me to do that.”