When Robert Misseri founded Guardians of Rescue in 2010 to help stray and shelter animals on Long Island, it wasn't long before he and his network of volunteers realized they could change the lives of military veterans at the same time.
Guardians of Rescue's two signature programs, No Buddy Left Behind and Paws of War, save animals in shelters and the former war zones of Iraq and Afghanistan so they can be adopted by the veterans who were their battle buddies or who need them the most -- those with post-traumatic stress disorder or traumatic brain injuries.
"It's probably the most fulfilling program that I've ever done in animal rescue because I'm helping both ends of the leash," said Dori Scofield, vice president of Guardians of Rescue and founder of Save-A-Pet Animal Rescue and Adoption Center in Port Jefferson Station, where Guardians animals are housed. "Not only am I helping a rescue animal, I'm helping the veterans. It's like a two-for-one rescue."
Misseri's passion for rescue began in 2007, after he began accompanying an elderly woman who dedicated many nights to trapping cats, getting them spayed and neutered and then returning them to their habitat as a means of helping control the stray cat population.
"She told me that every time she would go there, these guys would come and make fun of her and yell at her, or remove the cat shelters and the cat food," said Misseri, 44, who lives in Smithtown and owns a corporate catering company in Manhattan. "She took her Social Security check and bought food every single week to make sure these cats were fed."
Misseri realized it would take more to help the animals and their caretakers than acting as a bodyguard.
"I decided I was going to create an organization that shows that men can love animals and also be cool at the same time," he said.
Misseri founded Rescue Ink, an animal welfare organization whose tattooed members -- former bodybuilders, firefighters, bouncers -- literally rode to the rescue of animals on their motorcycles, recovering those that had been stolen and rescuing needy ones, some of which were abused. They often came down hard on abusers, throwing in a dash of humiliation and confrontation for good measure. In 2009, Rescue Ink was the subject of a National Geographic television show of the same name.
Misseri said that while the group had the potential to make a substantial difference in the cause, members fought about its direction, leading to the cancellation of the show's second season. Misseri resigned but said he couldn't abandon his mission, which led to the creation of Guardians of Rescue in 2010.
Like Misseri, the group's 10 core volunteers and dozens of others across Long Island participate for the reward of helping the veterans and the dogs.
"It's so gratifying to give a service dog to a veteran with PTSD who is struggling with their own demons, and getting the response back from them about how that animal has instantaneously changed their life," said Joanne Contegiacomo, the group's director of community relations.
Strays, then beloved friends
Stray dogs are rampant in Afghanistan, and U.S. military camps often are built where they roam. American soldiers bond with the animals, which are not considered pets in Afghanistan and have in most cases never experienced kindness from people.
"The dogs give them a sense of security and home," said Misseri. When it's time for the soldiers to leave, the heartbreak of knowing what the dogs face without them is unbearable. "It weighs very heavy on these soldiers when they don't know how to get the dogs back to the United States," said Misseri, who describes the dogs' living conditions in Afghanistan as very abusive. "When you talk to veterans that had to leave these dogs behind, they live with regret for the rest of their lives."
To change that, Guardians of Rescue raises money to bring the dogs to America through its No Buddy Left Behind program, which began in 2010. The nonprofit grants every request, despite the time and money involved. The cost -- $3,000 to $4,000 per dog -- is raised through social media campaigns on crowdfunding sites such as GoFundMe, Fund-Razr and YouCaring. Guardians of Rescue features the dog's stories on social media, with a link to the page where people can donate.
No Buddy Left Behind has reunited 25 dogs with their war buddies. The story of Sheba made national news last September, when Guardians of Rescue reunited the mother and her seven puppies with the New York National Guard unit that befriended them.
"The whole unit fell in love with the whole litter, and they became like little daddies to them, and they all adopted them," said Misseri.
Getting the dogs from a war camp in Afghanistan to Long Island is not quick or easy. Guardians of Rescue begins by contacting the international rescue organization Nowzad, which has a facility on the outskirts of Kabul and is a registered nonprofit in London and Peoria, Ill. Nowzad rescues the dog (and cats, too) from the camp it's in and brings it to Kabul, where the animal is quarantined, vaccinated and spayed or neutered. The dog is then transported to Dubai and finally flown to the United States to be reunited with its war buddy. The process can take two months or longer.
Seeing the bond between rescue dogs and veterans led to Guardians of Rescue's other signature program, Paws of War. The dogs, which the group gets from local shelters and others across the United States, are specifically trained to meet the needs of each veteran, based on his or her condition. The group will even match the breed or age of a dog to a veteran's request.
"If the veteran suffers from hyper-vigilance or claustrophobia, we will train the dog to face outward towards the door," Scofield said. "Some are trained to wake you up when the alarm goes off."
Paws of War, whose slogan is "Help a vet, save a pet," became an official program in 2012 and has matched about 15 dogs with veterans recovering from PTSD or traumatic brain injuries, many on Long Island.
One of them is former Marine and Iraq War veteran Paul Zimmerman of North Babylon. Zimmerman, 31, adopted his boxer, Kona, as a puppy, and Guardians of Rescue funded Kona's training so he could help Zimmerman manage his PTSD. "It certainly is the best medicine I've ever had," said Zimmerman, who served in Iraq from 2006 to 2007. "Just having him just being there for you is tremendous."
Zimmerman said his hyper-vigilance causes him to perceive everything as a potential threat or danger -- from an ice cream truck coming down the street to a book falling off a shelf. Every week he trains with Kona at Wrkndog in Bohemia to ensure that Kona won't react when out in public and around other people and animals.
"He's going to have to be able to sit for long periods of time and just really be there for me," Zimmerman said. "If a book crashes, he has to be trained to not even flinch, because I'm jumping out of my seat."
It's not only dogs and their owners that Guardians helps. The group intervened when Vietnam veteran Don Markoff had to choose between eviction from his Patchogue home and keeping his beloved cat, a Siamese named Remus. Markoff, 64, said Remus has been good for what ailed him, noting that within a month after living with Remus, the symptoms from his metabolic syndrome -- including high blood pressure and elevated blood sugar and triglycerides levels -- had nearly disappeared. He said he didn't know he had to register Remus with the veterans group that provided a subsidy for his apartment, and he faced eviction for refusing to give him up.
"It got to the point where I didn't know what I was going to do, and out of the blue I got a call from Bob [Misseri]," Markoff said. "He told me 'Don't worry about a thing, we'll take care of it and get the cat registered.' "
And he did. When that was taken care of, Misseri sent over three volunteers with a year's supply of cat food and hundreds of pounds of kitty litter.
"It's not even just the money," said Markoff. "He saved me so much grief and stress that I certainly didn't need. I'll be forever grateful to Bob and his organization."
Two rescue groups work together
Misseri turned to Scofield, who lives in Stony Brook, to head up Paws of War. Since founding Save-A-Pet in 1994, Scofield has worked with Misseri on many rescue efforts. Because Guardians of Rescue doesn't have a physical location, every animal the group rescues lives at Save-A-Pet until it finds an owner. They are trained there and at outside facilities such as Bohemia-based Wrkndog, Pet Peeves Dog Training in Centereach and Canine Counsel in Medford.
Scofield, 53, said it's usually a wife, mother or girlfriend of a struggling veteran who takes the first step toward a Guardians of Rescue match. She has cared for animals since 1977, when she began her career as a groomer for show dogs.
"You're born with it, it's like a calling, it's something inside of you," said the lifelong animal lover. "I was the one that animals always followed home from school when I was a kid."
It costs $2,000 to $3,000 for Guardians of Rescue to fully train each dog before it is placed with a veteran. After six months of training, the dog is usually ready to go home with its new owner, and the training often continues afterward, depending on the veteran's need. At a minimum, the dogs are completely obedience-trained, and, as in the case of Zimmerman, they are trained to help solve a specific difficulty. The money comes from a combination of grants, social media fundraisers, advertising and off-site events such as comedy shows and car shows.
Contegiacomo, 41, of Hicksville, manages Guardians of Rescue's dozens of volunteers across Long Island and also works with a network of other rescue organizations throughout the country.
One of her out-of-state contacts was Jacqueline Thornton, a dog rescuer and former military wife who saw firsthand the devastating effects of PTSD on veterans. While living at Fort Bragg, an Army base in North Carolina, Thornton volunteered for Operation: Dog Tag, a rescue group founded by military wives. She became friendly with Contegiacomo while the two worked together to transport dogs between the two states.
While Thornton, 32, who is originally from Manorville, was visiting her family last summer, she volunteered at the Fast and the Furriest event, a Guardians of Rescue fundraiser, and was floored by their passion.
"If we don't do it, who's going to?" Thornton said of rescuing dogs and helping veterans with PTSD. "I was blown away by this community of people who felt the same way," she said of the Paws of War volunteers.
Thornton moved back to Manorville this year and said she plans to donate her time to Guardians of Rescue regularly. She began with the group's St. Pitty's Day pit bull adoption event at Save-A-Pet on March 16 with her daughter, Mia, 5.
Misseri said he believes Guardians of Rescue's mission is contagious, and often gets calls from Iraq and Afghanistan veterans offering to help build dog houses and support events.
Zimmerman agrees, and said he has experienced a sense of community with fellow veterans and their dogs.
"One of the best things that I've found so far about working with Guardians of Rescue is that it brought me together with other veterans," said Zimmerman, who attended the Huntington St. Patrick's Day parade and socialized with other veterans and their dogs. "Any vet with PTSD will tell you we isolate ourselves from the world, but just getting me out of my basement and socializing with other veterans with their own dogs was a really nice thing. I got joy out of seeing my dog with other dogs."
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story misidentified Centereach-based Pet Peeves Dog Training as the nonprofit Pet Peeves, a separate organization based in Woodbury.
SIGN ME UP
For more information on Guardians of Rescue, email info@guardiansof rescue.org, visit guardiansofrescue.org to fill out a volunteer application or call 888-287-3864. The organization is seeking animal-loving volunteers with all skills -- graphic designers, dog walkers, groomers, fundraisers, website creators and people who can help at off-site events. The next fundraiser is the Fur Ball on April 3 at Flowerfield in St. James to benefit Save-A-Pet, housing all the Guardians of Rescue animals.
Pets for Vets rescues shelter dogs and trains them to become companions for veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder. Its Long Island/NYC chapter is based in West Hempstead.
Contact: 347-762-0280; pets-for-vets.com; firstname.lastname@example.org
Pal-O-Mine Equestrian, founded in 1995 and based in Islandia, helps treat the effects of trauma on vets through equine-assisted psychotherapy. "Herd dynamics can help clients understand their own lives," said Lisa A. Gatti, founder and executive director. "This helps military clients quickly translate emotional insights into life-changing action." Riding is not part of the therapy.
Contact: 631-348-1389; pal-o-mine.org; tours are available on-site.
For more volunteer information and opportunities, contact the Long Island Volunteer Center at 516-564-5482; longislandvolunteercenter.org.