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Medford nonprofit teams wounded vets, service dogs

Marine Corps Sgt. John M. Peck, 26, hugs

Marine Corps Sgt. John M. Peck, 26, hugs his new service dog Nasar at Canine Companions for Independence in Medford. “He’s hyper as hell, which is fun because he has so much energy,” Peck says of his Labrador retriever mix. “It keeps me in good spirits. Hopefully, I can teach him to catch a girl for me." Credit: Newsday/Thomas A. Ferrara

John M. Peck knew Nasar would be his best friend the moment he set eyes on him.

Peck, a Marine Corps sergeant from Illinois with two combat tours under his belt, saw the honey-colored Labrador retriever mix as his way to a better life. Now, after two weeks spent with Nasar at a Medford training facility, Peck knows Nasar has his back.

Nasar couldn't have come along at a better time.

Peck, 26, lost major parts of all four of his limbs two years ago when he stepped on an explosive device in Afghanistan's Helmand province. He has received extensive therapy and prosthetics at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington and now, as he continues to rebuild his life, he has met his future in a handsome dog that will help him navigate his life as a wounded veteran.

Peck was one of two wounded combat veterans who Friday will complete a two-week training session at Canine Companions for Independence, a Medford nonprofit that provides assistance dogs for the disabled, including veterans.

In one session, Nasar learned how to open doors.

"Side!" Peck commanded, as they approached an automatic door on the side of the corridor. "Push!"

Expertly, Nasar punched the button on the wall with his nose and the door sprang open. Seeing how smart and effective Nasar is, Peck joked that the dog might even help him get dates.

"He's hyper as hell, which is fun because he has so much energy," Peck said. "It keeps me in good spirits. Hopefully, I can teach him to catch a girl for me. He's the ultimate icebreaker -- a chick magnet."

The two combat veterans -- the other is retired Army Capt. James Van Thach, 36, of Bellerose -- are among the ranks of U.S. troops who are learning to live with the consequences of the serious wounds they suffered on the battlefields of Iraq or Afghanistan.

The dogs that will now be their closest and perhaps most loyal companions help them cope, mentally and physically, both men said.

E. David Woycik Jr., a retired Army colonel who served in the Desert Storm campaign that ousted Iraq from Kuwait in 1991, said service dogs can be valuable in helping war-injured troops overcome physical limitations and a sense of emotional isolation.

"The programs we run at Canine Companions are a tremendous asset to the soldiers, so they are able to function with as much confidence and mobility as possible," said Woycik, of Garden City, who serves on the organization's board of directors.

Once off duty, Nasar is a high-strung, cheerful hound -- which Peck said is the perfect companion for him. During a break in training, Nasar happily bound around the dormitory room where Peck is staying at Canine Companions, playfully wrestling with another dog and pulling at a squeaky toy.

Multiple traumas involving amputations such as the ones Peck experienced -- which the Pentagon classifies as "dismounted complex blast injuries" -- more than doubled since the Afghanistan troop surge of 2009, the Defense Department announced last September.

In all, 194 U.S. troops suffered an amputation to at least one limb between January 2010 and March 2011, according to a Pentagon website. Two months ago, Army Surgeon General Patricia Horoho told a Senate subcommittee that the number of troops who lost three limbs in Afghanistan last year was double the number of such wounds in the eight prior years combined.

Van Thach, whose name is pronounced "tick," is also receiving a service dog to help him cope with the consequences of a brain injury suffered during a 2008 rocket attack near Iraq's border with Iran.

While he survived with all his limbs intact, the explosion of a rocket that landed near him partially blinded his left eye and crushed nerves in his back, causing him such severe pain that he has difficulty opening doors or picking up dropped items. That's where his new dog, Liz, who is also a Labrador retriever mix, again, will come in handy.

The head trauma also left Van Thach, who has been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, uneasy in crowds.

"It's very difficult because I have difficulty remembering names and faces," Van Thach said. "And when I'm outside in public, I know it's safe out there, but my brain is super vigilant about my surroundings, about people around me. I have to put eyes on them."

Van Thach, a 2002 graduate of Touro Law Center in Huntington, moved back in with his parents after he was medically retired from the Army three years ago.

He said in the two weeks he has worked with Liz, they have already built a bond, and he looks forward to having her help him feel more confident in his daily life.

"I'm building a trust relationship with her," he said, as Liz nuzzled his hand. "She can be a buffer for me, and help me feel calmer in public situations."


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