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LIers — and their dogs — race to benefit veterans

Angus, right, with the United States flag painted

Angus, right, with the United States flag painted on him, meets Jake at Saturday's run and dog walk to benefit America's VetDogs. Photo Credit: Debbie Egan-Chin

Who let the dogs out? Hundreds of Long Island veterans at Saturday morning’s fifth annual run and dog walk, hosted by America’s VetDogs.

Dogs of every breed, size and color blithely accompanied their owners, interacting with their canine companions and scavenging for water bowls, as they wandered around the fields and cemented paths of Cedar Creek Park in Seaford with the race set to begin at 8:15 a.m. 

America’s VetDogs has trained and placed  more than 1,000 service dogs, free of charge, with wounded veterans and first responders throughout the nation since 2003. Each year, about 75 dogs are placed with owners, said Andrew Rubenstein, the director of marketing.

Manny Koutalides, a former Marine from Port Jefferson Station, received his black PTSD service lab, Oscar — named after a character on "The Odd Couple" — about a year ago.

Koutalides served in Iraq and Kuwait and was diagnosed with PTSD around 2016.

“He’s like my guardian,” Koutalides said, alongside his wife and two children, all of whom agree to having their lives changed for the better by Oscar. “I think he knows how I feel better than I do.”

Oscar has allowed Koutalides to involve himself in social environments that he normally would not have felt comfortable about and even have avoided, he said. Oscar also stands at Koutalides’ bedside when he’s asleep, almost as if standing guard.

One of this year’s notable canine attendees was the late President George H.W. Bush's former service dog, Sully H.W. Bush, who was born and trained at America’s VetDogs in Smithtown. Though his full-time job now consists of walking the hallways and visiting the veterans at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center outside Washington, D.C., Sully was able to vacation on Long Island for the event.

Jason Helfer, of Elmont, turned heads as he made his way toward the race’s course with his small Pomeranian poodle, Angus, who had been airbrushed in shades of bright red and blue against his marshmallow white fur to create a United States flag on his entire back.

Helfer, a Marine veteran and now an electrician, chairs fundraising committees for veterans and attended the race to raise awareness and show his support for veterans with unmet needs.

“These are service dogs for men and women who have been injured and wounded so badly in combat that they’ve lost limbs, lost sight and they need a little extra help,” he said. “They need a hand up, and that’s what we’re trying to do.”

This year, America’s VetDogs raised $59,013 through the run. The event’s sponsors included Suez, BAE Systems, Bloomberg Philanthropies and D&B Engineering. Nearly 500 people registered for the nonprofit’s timed 5-kilometer and 2-mile walk.

Linda and Scott Fairgrieve of Mineola take their four dogs to the event each year. Saturday was their fourth time attending, with Linda walking two of the dogs as Scott raced in the 5k with the others.

“We support the veterans and I can see how a dog would change their lives, especially if they have any issues, and help them," Lisa Fairgrieve said.

America’s VetDogs trains and places service dogs, guide dogs, PTSD service dogs, seizure response dogs and military facility dogs. This year, the organization placed more dogs with disabled veterans and first responders than ever before, CEO and president John Miller said.

“Everything we do is about serving our veterans and our first responders who need our services,” he said.

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