Leashes of Valor recently hosted veteran service members at Patriot Point for a 10-day retreat welcoming new Warrior-Canine teams into its program.
Aaron, an Air Force veteran who deployed seven times to Iraq and Afghanistan and now is a teacher in North Carolina, graduated with his service dog, Gordy. Brian, a Navy veteran from Virginia Beach, graduated with his service dog, Colt.
“Patriot Point plays an integral role in the success of our Warrior-Canine classes,” said Leashes of Valor CEO Jason Haag, who is a retired Marine. “For 10 days, veterans learn to incorporate a service dog into their lives in the hope of returning to a more full and fulfilling life. This is not an easy process. For some, it means facing fears they have spent years avoiding. But waking up each day at Patriot Point in the quiet and solitude this beautiful property provides can make all the difference for our warriors. It’s also a safe, private space to unwind each evening after a rigorous day of training with a service dog. It is truly healing.”
Aaron has Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. He was stationed at the Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001, when a plane crashed into the building and sustained a concussion. While on deployment, he regularly heard gunshots whizzing by and later developed bad dreams and nightmares.
“I had social anxiety which turned into mild agoraphobia and hypervigilance,” Aaron said. “I would love to go in and grab groceries or buy a new shirt. But there’s never enough exits. There’s never any type of control for that environment. It overwhelms you.
“A therapist recommended looking into a service dog. Then I met Richard, a Leashes of Valor warrior with similar issues. If not for Richard, I wouldn’t have pursued it. I really owe everything to him. When I got here and met Gordy, everything was moving fast. You think, ‘You’re not ready for this.’ But that’s what you’re here for. Having someone like Gordy who is trained to look for certain things without me ever knowing it, has been 100 percent invaluable. After a few days of training, that team concept really clicked. We’re one unit moving together.”
Leashes of Valor recently brought four veterans to Patriot Point, where they spent 10 days training with their new service dogs. The nonprofit provides highly-trained service dogs at no cost to post-9/11 veterans who need them due to the effects of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, Traumatic Brain Injury or Military Sexual Trauma.
“Our 20-acre farm in Virginia can currently accommodate just one veteran and their canine at a time,” Leashes of Valor founder Jason Haag said. “Patriot Point gives us the opportunity to quadruple the number of veterans we can serve at once. It really allows us to increase our reach.”
The service members at the May training came from Michigan, Florida, Texas and Virginia. At Patriot Point, they learned how to live and work with their new service dogs at home and in public.
“One of the guys had not left his house in 10 years,” Haag said. “To be able to get on a plane and travel somewhere was huge. We are so grateful for a place like Patriot Point where our warriors can learn to incorporate a service dog into their lives in a beautiful, peaceful setting.”
Service dogs can reduce symptoms of PTSD by up to 80 percent. More than 40 percent of veterans with service dogs can cut back on their medications.
“After I left the military, I worked as a retail detective back home in Michigan. I suffered from PTSD and hypervigilance. At work, all the hustle and bustle reminded me of the streets of Iraq and sent me into flashbacks where I’d get physically sick,” said Gabe, a Marine Corps veteran who was part of the most recent class of Leashes of Valor veterans at Patriot Point. “I had a lot of trust issues with people. I’m hoping that with Patton, my service dog, I can get back out in society. I don’t do anything. I stay at home all the time. My kids are young. When they get older they’re going to start playing football and different sports. I want to be able to go to their games without worrying about if someone is out to get me.”
Said John, who served in the 7th Special Forces Group and deployed four times to Iraq and Afghanistan: “My hope is that Chesty will help with the anxiety and loneliness that soldiers tend to have. You don’t have to worry about a dog’s feelings. They’re just there for you.”
Relaxing and safe environment to enjoy outdoor recreational activities