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Smithtown charity trains service dogs for military vets

Army Spc. Brandon Rethmel and Kimberly Ison work

Army Spc. Brandon Rethmel and Kimberly Ison work with their dogs. Rethmel applied for a service dog after meeting one while recuperating at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C. (July 13, 2010) Credit: Ed Betz

Two years ago, a sniper's bullet struck Kimberly Ison while the Army staff sergeant was stationed in Serbia. It shattered her wrist and left her with a concussion and a fractured sense of security.

Ison, who previously served tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, became distrustful of crowds and fearful of leaving her San Antonio apartment. Worse still, Ison, who also suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder, became such an active sleepwalker she feared she would harm herself while in a dream state.

But a 2-year-old golden retriever named Bosley, trained by America's VetDogs, a Suffolk County-based charity, is helping Ison regain a sense of well-being.

"I would wake up in the closet or in the bathtub. My biggest fear was that I'd get into the car and drive," said Ison, 53. "He's pretty much given me my life back."

 

Training for service

At the VetDogs campus on Jericho Turnpike in Smithtown, war-scarred troops from around the country come to be matched with dogs taught to care for them. In addition to the Northport Veterans Affairs Medical Center, military therapy dogs trained in Smithtown are used to comfort patients at the Eisenhower medical center at Fort Gordon, Ga. And George and Raleigh - a golden retriever and a mixed golden/lab - are stationed at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C.

Under an arrangement that began in 2007, two "combat stress" dogs from Smithtown are stationed with psychotherapists in Tikrit and Mosul, Iraq, providing emotional relief for troops dealing with sleep disorders, homesickness or battle-related anxieties. Two more are scheduled to go to Iraq in August.

On a humid July morning, service dogs trained there with Ison and other disabled service members - including an amputee, a soldier blinded by his injuries and several with post-traumatic stress disorder - who were picked from a waiting list to receive them.

The dogs helped with balance problems, fetching and retrieving dropped items, and carrying small backpacks. Soldiers with PTSD were matched with dogs that had been taught to sense situations their new master may find stressful, such as crowds, and to physically block strangers who are getting too close.

Bosley has learned to keep Ison from leaving her bedroom if she walks in her sleep. If Ison stirs in the middle of the night, the big golden retriever bounds to the door to block her way.

He also watches for signs of increasing anxiety in Ison, a common symptom of PTSD sufferers.

When the crackle of fireworks going off near the Smithtown training facility reminded Ison of gunshots, Bosley took Ison's hand in his mouth and walked her back into the building.

"I was in tears," Ison said. "I wondered, 'How does he know this?' "

 

Connecting with patients

Health experts credit service dogs with helping to ease the recovery of patients recuperating at military and veterans hospitals here and across the country.

James Leathem, a mental-health social worker at Northport Veterans Affairs Medical Center, said he began incorporating Bruno, a retired guide dog, into psychotherapy sessions.

Leathem said the dog's presence helps relax patients when painful emotions make them clam up.

"The dog will actually get up from his slumber, walk over and lay his chin on his knee, and the veteran will relax," Leathem said. "It's been extremely effective. The veterans are more willing to talk in a group setting than they were before he was working here."

America's VetDogs was founded in 2003 by the Smithtown-based Guide Dog Foundation for the Blind. The charity has provided about 100 veterans with dogs, said spokesman William Krol.

Dogs that are bred at the Smithtown kennels are sent for about a year to the homes of "puppy walkers," who teach them basic commands and familiarize them with behaving in public.

"There are a few places I go without a dog, but not many," said Susan Semple, 61, of Huntington, who said she began as a dog-raising volunteer four years ago in memory of her blind father. "It was a niche waiting for me."

Once they are old enough, the dogs return to the VetDogs campus for several months, learning how to cope with the specific need of a veteran waiting to be matched with a dog.

Finally, veterans arrive at the campus for about 10 days of training with their dogs, learning how to convey their needs to the dogs and how to keep their dogs from becoming distracted.

Army Spc. Brandon Rethmel, 23, of Colorado Springs, who spent a year at Walter Reed after a leg amputation, applied for a service dog after meeting George, a VetDogs animal stationed there.

Rethmel was uneasy about talking with psychotherapists about a rocket attack in Afghanistan that destroyed his leg and killed a buddy, Sgt. Rodrigo Munguia Rivas, 27, of Maryland.

Having George around helped him relax enough to open up.

"Especially George, that made it a lot easier," Rethmel said from his wheelchair. "It wasn't as stressful."

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