Russell Anderson of Port Jefferson, a U.S. Marine veteran and Purple Heart recipient, spoke Sunday about being connected by Paws of War of Nesconset to a service dog to help with everyday tasks, such as waking him when he is having a nightmare. The golden retriever, Finley, is himself a rescue. NewsdayTV's Steve Langford reports. Credit: Newsday/James Carbone; Morgan Campbell

A disabled Marine veteran and Purple Heart recipient injured in combat has found a kindred spirit in a golden retriever rescued from a bad breeding situation.

Despite being injured and dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder,  Sgt. Russell Anderson says his life has changed for the better since being connected with Finley, a male companion dog that will help him with his everyday needs. The two were matched together by Paws of War, a Nesconset-based nonprofit that links veterans and first responders who suffer with emotional and physical disabilities with dogs and cats for assistance and companionship.

Anderson, 31, a Smithtown native now residing in Port Jefferson, said he initially aspired to be a musician while growing up. However, Anderson, the middle child of three siblings, decided to go into the military at age 17, following in the footsteps of his uncle Wayne Anderson, who served in the U.S. Army, and his late grandfather Ronald Anderson, a member of the U.S. Navy.

“I saw it as an opportunity to travel the world and do great things,” Russell Anderson said.

Anderson served two tours of duty, first deploying to Iraq and Afghanistan starting in July 2011 as a lance corporal and infantry mortar man squad leader. However, only months into his tour of duty, his life changed forever.

On Nov. 10, 2011, Anderson and his 10-man team were on a standard security patrol when an improvised explosive device detonated near him. The blast launched Anderson several feet in the air and left pieces of shrapnel in his legs, arms and stomach. All but two in his patrol unit were killed. 

“I remember vividly being flung through the air like a rag doll, being awake the whole time,” Anderson said.

Anderson spent many months recovering from his injuries before returning to duty in 2014, where he was stationed off the coast of Syria. Since returning home, however, Anderson struggles with PTSD, back and knee injuries, and traumatic brain injuries, among other issues.

After he and his girlfriend, Amanda Skelly, talked to a veteran about Paws of War, Anderson met with the nonprofit and they connected him with Finley three months ago. Described by Anderson and nonprofit officials as a happy, energetic, 9-month-old dog, Finley was rescued in Alabama from an illegal pet breeding operation.

Robert Misseri, co-founder of Paws of War, said dogs like Finley are vital tools in helping veterans struggling with anxiety and other issues.

“These dogs … help bring veterans out of their comfort zone,” Misseri said.

Sponsored by Searingtown nonprofit The Unsung Siblings Foundation, Finley is undergoing training to become a certified service dog, learning to help Anderson with tasks such as staying active and waking him up if he experiences nightmares or night terrors. Anderson, a veterinarian assistant at Sayville Animal Hospital, says Finley already has made a huge positive effect on his life.

“We’ve instantly bonded,” Anderson said with a laugh. “There’s been a few times where I’ve been a little anxious and he’s picked up on it and he’d cheer me up or bring me a toy. And having to care for another thing is good for you. He’s such a good dog.”

  • While receiving treatment for his injuries in Afghanistan, Russell Anderson was awarded a Purple Heart for heroic and courageous actions during his service.  
  • To date, Paws of War has helped connect roughly 600 support dogs and cats with veterans on Long Island and other parts of the country since being founded in 2014, according to Robert Misseri, the nonprofit’s co-founder.
  • The nonprofit covers all dog rescues, placements and training at no cost to veterans and first responders.
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