There are very few folks out there who would say they DON’T support our veterans. There are also very few folks out there (yeah, I know you exist, but honestly. . .) that don’t love dogs. When you combine our enormous debt to veterans with our ongoing love of dogs, you get a really good reason to consider donating your time or money to Paws and Stripes.
I just got off the phone with the very passionate and enthusiastic Jim Stanek. Jim and his wife Lindsey are the founders of Paws and Stripes, a New Mexico organization that trains service dogs for veterans with PTSD and Traumatic Brain Injury. The difference in this organization and others? Paws and Stripes only uses rescue dogs and they provide the dog and the training to veterans at no cost.
Here’s their story: Jim served three tours of duty in Iraq as a staff sergeant. He took men into combat, and in his own words, “I was blown up quite a few times by IED’s.” Not once or twice. Quite a few times. Says he really doesn’t know how he kept all his limbs.
Jim also says that in America, we’re amazingly good at giving soldiers the tools they need to survive while they’re enlisted. We’re just not particularly good at giving them tools to survive after they come home.
So when Jim came home from Iraq the last time with not only PTSD but traumatic brain injury as well, he had some issues. Serious issues, according to him. Wanting to find help with his anxiety, he checked into getting a service dog.
And guess what? There was an incredibly long waiting list, the cost of the dogs ranged from $10,000 to $60,000, that cost had to be borne by the vet, AND the vet didn’t get to choose or train their dog. Nine times Jim tried to get a service dog, with his fingers crossed that by some miracle he would be able to afford it if one ever came through. No luck.
Of course Jim was frustrated and angry. He says his wife Lindsey, (“Thank God for Lindsey,” he tells me. . .) looked at him and said, “Jim, when are we going to do this for ourselves. And all those other vets who are waiting on a service dog?” And Jim, being the guy with the infantry mentality said, “Okay, let’s go!”
The Staneks went to a lecture in Rio Rancho held by service dog trainers Rick and Heather Dillender. After the lecture, the four of them got together, chatted, the Staneks shared their dilemma and their dream for curing it, and in a short period of time, Paws and Stripes was born.
Jim says that PTSD is a condition with issues about control. Returning vets with PTSD have a hard time feeling like they have control over anything that’s occurring in their life, which translates to high anxiety levels. Jim says that when he first came home, he had an anxiety level of about 11 ½ on a 1 – 10 scale. Choosing, training and then owning a service dog gave him a feeling that he actually could control some aspects of his life. And as his relationship with the dog progressed, his levels reduced to about 3. Guess what? His dog, Sergeant (yeah, I love that name too!), is now so attuned to Jim that he knows when Jim’s anxiety level is rising. And Sergeant works to lower that anxiety level by being the good dog that he is, calming and soothing Jim.
So how do they do it? Paws and Stripes works with vets in a three-phase process, the last of which is to take a vet to local rescue shelters and start looking at dogs. Vets choose their pet and spend some one on one time in a separate run to see how they interact. The minute a vet says, “That’s my dog,” he or she takes the animal home. And within three days the training begins.
The training takes six months with two trainings a week. There’s a group session and there’s one on one training out in public – the dog, the vet and the trainer hanging out in places like Lowe’s, Home Depot, the mall, restaurants. All places that neither the vet nor the dog might have felt comfortable before meeting one another and starting the training.
Jim says that the group trainings serve two purposes – the dogs get socialized to other dogs and people, and the vets get together and create their own social circle. The goal is that in six months, the vet and the dog are working together as a team navigating through what was previously a very difficult environment for both.
“It’s like this,” Jim says, “You’ve got a dog stuck in a shelter, isolated, feeling unloved, not knowing how to socialize, not knowing what love is. And you know what? Some vets coming back from combat have exactly the same issues.” He says in his case, life took two mutts and put them together. “You can use that term. I’m proud to be called a mutt.”
That makes the dog and the vet birds of a feather, and when they start to succeed, they succeed as a team.
“We don’t treat train our dogs,” Jim says. “What we do is what’s considered affection-based training. When the dog does something good, we pet them behind the ears and tell them what a good dog they are, that Daddy loves you.” The dogs get a positive response, and in turn, the vets get more comfortable with affection in general, even with their own wives and families.
I asked Jim what Paws and Stripes needed. “Quite honestly,” he said, “We have 400 vets on our waiting list, 196 from New Mexico. We need money. The cost per service dog team is $2,000.”
Paws and Stripes has an anonymous benefactor who has offered to give a matching gift of $50,000 if they can raise an initial $50,000 by September 1, 2012. The initial $50,000 gift needs to be in a lump sun, but could be from an organization, several individuals, any mixture of people or entities wanting to give money to this cause. Jim’s excited about the prospect of finding someone who can make that sort of contribution. I told him I’d mention it here – surely there’s an organization or individual who believes this is a worthy cause. If I had the money, I’d write that check.
But if you don’t have that cash, you can still go to their website and make a donation. Buy a t-shirt. Become a volunteer. Get a koozie.
This Saturday is graduation day. Six veterans will graduate with their dogs. Five guys who signed a contract with Uncle Sam, put on a uniform and vowed to protect us, who knew they were going to be put in harm’s way and who knew they might not get to come home. The U.S. sent them off with a kitbag full of tools to get them through their tour of duty. Now Jim and Lindsey are trying to give them an entirely new set of tools to survive. Instead of just handing them medication and telling them to get better, Paws and Stripes is determined to help these guys live full, relatively anxiety-free lives.
Jim loves graduation day. “Those dogs were once dogs that no one else would have chosen. They were on their way to be put down. But then somehow we found a way to give that dog and their vet a second chance. By graduation day, they’re walking proud, leading their master, who is also walking proud because he’s trained his own service dog. Nothing else has worked for them, but at graduation they’re all full of life. The vet and dog both get a new leash on life.” Jim laughs. “Yeah,” he says, “you can quote me on that.”
And Paws and Stripes doesn’t just focus on Iraq and Afghanistan vets. They recently worked with a Vietnam Vet who had been living in a mobile home in the middle of nowhere for 17 years. He got into the program, got a dog and has now moved into town. “He tells me he’s not used to people asking him how his day was, but now he’s back in the middle of the city, functioning as a member of society.” Jim loves that story.
He says a Korean War Vet recently contacted him. “Jim, he told me, I don’t know how many years I have, but I want to live them happy.” Jim told him to come on in and start the process of choosing a dog.
I love this New Mexico story. I love the idea of rescue dogs and vets finding one another and helping each other to heal. I heard about Paws and Stripes from Enchanted Deals – Juliette at Enchanted Deals mentioned them to me as one of their chosen charities. If you sign up for Enchanted Deals and then choose this charity, 10% of every deal you pay for will immediately be donated to Paws and Stripes.
Note added on 3/3/12: If you to go Two Casitas Santa Fe Vacation Rentals or call Wendy Kapp at 505-984-2270 and book for summer at full rate, a mention of Paws and Stripes will get 10% of your base rate donated to this charity.
Check out their website. Consider donating something to this great cause. You can even give a memorial gift honoring a great dog who was once in your’s or a friend’s life. And if you or a group of you have $25,000 or $50,000 in your wallet, consider giving it as a matching gift. . .what a great cause!