Jan 30, 2012 Amanda Seef Uncategorized
There’s no greater bond than between man and his dog — except, maybe, between a military veteran and his service dog.
That relationship is being fostered at Clear Path for Veterans, a non-profit organization that aims to help veterans returning from war re-acclimate to American life. It provides Dogs2Vets, among other programs, to help re-acclimate and reintegrate veterans into their daily lives after returning to the States.
“In a general sense, this place is geared toward healing the emotion wounds of war. Some of those have labels, some don’t.”
Clear Path’s expansive property sits on the line where Chittenango meets Manlius, nestled atop a hill with a tranquil view of the land below. On clear days, visitors can see for miles.
“I’ve been sitting here staring at the fog,” said Earl Fontenot. Fontenot served in Iraq with the U.S. Army in 2006, and works as the veterans caseworker in Congresswoman Ann Marie Buerkle’s office. “When I got back, I shut myself out for a few years, and I didn’t do much. This and my job, that has helped a lot. As much as I can be around other veterans, it does help a lot. “I think it’s better to come here rather than going to talk to a social worker once a month.”
Clear Path opened in September, officially, working from private-donations and grants to provide the services.
“Supporting our veterans when they come home is much more than yellow ribbons,” said Melissa Spicer, a co-founder of the organization. “There’s a disconnect between veterans coming home and what the community can do for them. If we really listen to them, we can provide them with what they need.”
“There’s a very personal side to this whole thing,” added co-founder Melinda Sorrentino, Spicer’s sister. “We all have bumper stickers supporting the troops, but this is a very close connection to these people.”
Spicer and Sorrentino teamed up with Dr. Steve Kinne to bring Clear Path to Chittenango — their first priority was launching Dogs2Vets. The program aims to pair shelter dogs with veterans who have been diagnosed with post traumatic stress disorder or military sexual trauma, in order to train the dog as a psychiatric service dog. Studies have shown, Kinne said, that the dogs can help when the veteran is having flashbacks or about to enter into a panic attack.
The dogs are adopted from local shelters, like Wanderer’s Rest, or the Humane Society’s in northern New York, closer to Fort Drum. Many of the dogs abandoned in Jefferson County are left behind by soldiers.
Recent reports by the U.S. Army show the number of suicides among soldiers is 32 per day, also showing an increase in soldiers who have been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and military sexual trauma.
“A lot of these veterans shut down their emotions,” Kinne, a retired Air Force Colonel, said. “It’s all a part of surviving during war but it doesn’t translate well here.”
The hand-picked dogs are paired with a veteran in the program. Something that makes the program unique, Kinne said, is that the soldier then trains the dog to become certified as a service dog. The training process is as therapeutic as having a service dog, he said.
“We know how much animals can help,” Kinne said. “The idea was, what if we can help dogs help vets? Many veterans, when they come back, they often start isolating themselves. The dog forces them to get out.”
The year-long program will bring the veterans to Clear Path’s facilities, which includes an expansive training area in the basement and miles of trails surrounding the facility.
“Over time, the dog and the veteran get to know each other so they’re completely bonded,” Kinne said. “That allows the dog to tell the veteran when things are changing.”
The dogs are trained to help during periods of stress or panic, and can help navigate through crowds or check rooms in a home for problems before the veteran enters.
Focusing on the dog’s needs during a veteran’s panic attacks also helps divert their attention, avoiding a potentially bigger problem.
Clear Path also offers talking circles, a traditional piece of Native American cultures. It’s not group therapy, but it complements traditional therapy programs, much like the Dogs2Vets program, Sorrentino said.
Clear Path’s work is lauded by Ray Toenniessen, the director of operations and development for Syracuse University’s Institute for Veterans and Military Families, who is also a member of the organization’s board of directors and a veteran.
“Typically you see a majority of veterans who always have that want to be involved and help others when they come back,” he said. “You don’t see it as much from individuals who aren’t veterans. You see people say they support the troops, but you don’t see it as much as I have here [at Clear Path].”
Neither Sorrentino nor Spicer are veterans or married to veterans. Their connection with veterans is strong, however, as they work to help the community help our military men and women.
“In a general sense, this place is geared toward healing the emotion wounds of war,” she said. “Some of them have labels, some don’t.”