On Friday afternoon, a meeting room at Northwest Florida State College in Niceville served as the stage for the latest success of the 4-year-old program.
NICEVILLE — “Save A Veteran. Rescue A Dog.”
That slogan, printed on T-shirts worn by Healing Paws for Warriors (HP4W) volunteers, neatly summarizes the local nonprofit organization’s mission: rescuing dogs from shelters and teaming them up as service animals with military veterans dealing with post-traumatic stress, traumatic brain injury or sexual assault suffered while in the military.
On Friday afternoon, a meeting room at Northwest Florida State College in Niceville served as the stage for the latest success of the 4-year-old program — the graduation of the latest pairs of dogs and veterans after a couple months of intensive team training.
Among the graduates were David White, an Air Force veteran who served from 2004-2016, and his service dog, Willow. Before teaming up with Willow, White’s life largely involved simply moving between home and work. Now he’s venturing out more widely, thanks to Willow.
“She gives me confidence,” White said as a young girl walked up and asked if she could pet the dog.
“Make a friend, Willow,” White gently told the dog as the child’s hand reached out.
White said he and Willow easily formed a bond.
“She chose me pretty quick,” he said, adding that it was “probably the second night” of training when the pair knew they would be a lifetime match.
Sadly, the limits of the word “lifetime” also were part of Friday’s graduation ceremony. Matt Rumple, a 21-year veteran who left military service in 2013 and subsequently got involved with HP4W, was mourning the recent death of his HP4W service dog Scout.
As he read a poem he wrote from his departed dog’s point of view, sniffles could be heard among the audience members.
“It’ hard when you’re given something and God takes it away,” Rumple said. But, he added, the lessons he learned while Scout was alive remain with him.
“You’re given your life back” with a HP4W dog, Rumple said.
Ashlyn Lewis-Hope, who served in the Army from 1996 until 2011, initially took a more traditional human-to-human counseling approach to dealing with her service-related trauma, but decided to try HP4W when a counselor recommended it.
On Friday, as she and her dog, Sammy, graduated, Lewis-Hope admitted that, initially, she “was very skeptical.” She and Sammy still are working to form a tight bond, she said, but she is venturing out more, going to the movies and not waiting until her refrigerator is empty to go grocery shopping.
“Bonding was hard for us,” she admitted as Sammy lay at her feet. “We’re still working on it.”
Robert Reed, a Marine Corps veteran who served from 2004 to 2015, learned about HP4W when he started a group for veterans dealing with post-traumatic stress and the nonprofit’s executive director, Mike Arena, joined his group.
Part of the challenge of bonding with his dog, Kimball, was making sure the dog could integrate with his family, which include a child dealing with asthma.
Things have worked out well, though, and with Kimball’s help, Reed even ventured out to classes at Northwest Florida State College.
“Kimball helped me get my life back,” Reed said.
Healing Paws for Warriors funded through donations and sponsorships, provides continuing support to the veteran and dog teams, at no cost to the veteran. But when a veteran-and-dog team graduates, they are asked to mentor incoming trainees.
Veterans interested in applying for the program can do so on the Haling Paws for Warriors website at https://www.healingpawsforwarriors.org/apply. The program is available to veterans who became disabled after Sept. 11, 2001, with post-traumatic stress, traumatic brain injury or sexual trauma during military service and/or with limited mobility impairment.