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Man’s best friends provide needed therapy

Shirley Schmunk, founder of Paws for Heroes, says goodbye to Dusti before handing her over to the Bradshaws for a year of service dog training. If Dusti passes her certification, she'll provide therapy and healing for a veteran suffering from physical inj

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Myah will always have a special place in Shirley Schmunk's heart.

Myah is a dog named after her son, Spc. Jeremiah Schmunk, who died in Iraq in 2004.

Shirley remembers Jeremiah's vocal nature, which coincidentally Myah shares.

She keeps her son alive through pictures and talking with other family members, but Myah will be a visual reminder of the ultimate sacrifice he made.

The dog will continue that tradition of service by providing psychiatric rehabilitation and therapy to wounded veterans as part of the Paws for Heroes program.

The Paws for Heroes non-profit organization has teamed up with Gold Star Families to provide foster homes for a year for three puppies, and met up last week to conduct a puppy ownership transfer.

The Families will work with privately funded trainers to teach the dogs basic obedience and socialization skills during that year.

If the dog successfully passes its public access certification tests and qualifies as a medical "service dog," the Gold Star Families will give that dog to a veteran who is suffering from combat-related injuries or medical symptoms like post-traumatic stress disorder or Traumatic Brain Injury, said program co-founder Staff Sgt. Aaron McCarthy, with the Washington National Guard at Camp Murray near Joint Base Lewis-McChord.

McCarthy started Paws for Heroes with Shirley last year to help other veterans recuperate with a service dog like he has had for the past few years.

He suffered shoulder injuries during a deployment to Iraq in 2004.

He went back in 2008, and upon coming home, developed trauma-induced Parkinson's disease.

This left him with balance and cognitive response issues, and resting tremors.

He was still found medically fit to serve despite the health problems, and received authorization to have Barney, a full-time service dog.

Three-year-old Barney is a golden retriever and helps McCarthy brace himself in the mornings.

Without Barney, McCarthy expects minor limitations would be much greater.

"I don't necessarily need him to pick anything up, but I get to a point and I lose my balance," McCarthy said. Barney is a great example of a service dog's impact for recovering veterans.

McCarthy works at the JBLM Warrior Transition Battalion for the National Guard, and he brings Barney to meet with veterans who aren't opening up to other coworkers.

"Because I work in an environment that suits veterans with PTS, he is intricate in the office," McCarthy said. "Who doesn't want to pet him?"

What started as an idea for McCarthy has grown into a movement thanks to Shirley. Even though she had lost her son in combat, she still wanted to maintain that military connection. After talking to other Gold Star Families who also wanted that link to the military, Paws for Heroes was the answer.

She reached out to other Families and found volunteers to take in the dogs and devote a year or more to socialization and training.

"Some (Gold Star Families) just are not ready to say goodbye to the military," Shirley said.

It's a busy year for these puppies. Myah can expect a year of constantly heading to the grocery store, movie theater, elementary school, church or restaurant - to become familiar with these places in the oft chance that the dog may travel there with a future veteran or veteran's Family.

The organization reduces the burden of maintaining a dog's eating, sleeping and developmental habits, and the financial costs associated with training a future service animal.

Costs can run to nearly $10,000 a year for everything, McCarthy said.

That includes application procedures, medical procedures and veterinary visits and home visits and consultations by the trainers and Paws for Heroes staff.

The kicker is that even after all the training and socialization, less than half of these dogs become medically certified to provide therapy.

That's why its important for the non-profit group to secure private donors for all these costs for the host families and the veterans who receive the dog so no one pays anything.

"Gold Star Families raise them, military people will benefit by getting them; it's a win-win-win situation all around," said Susan Whitman, program director.

Whitman got involved with the program because she became a Gold Star Mother after her son-in-law, Staff Sgt. Kyle Eggers, died in Iraq in 2004. The loss was difficult, but the desire to be part of the military never wavered.

She loves watching her daughter and three grandchildren interact with Georgie (named for George Washington), another puppy in the program, because it reminds her of how happy Eggers would be that the whole Family was helping someone they didn't know.

"The kids participate because this is for Dad," Whitman said. "It brings the military back into their lives and gives them hope."

For more information about Paws for Heroes, search for the organization on Facebook.


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