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Veteran, lifesaving dog visit paintball benefit

Tony Larson, 30, of St. Cloud, Minn., and

Tony Larson, 30, of St. Cloud, Minn., and his service dog, Tomme, gear up for a day of paintball at Cousins in Coram. The event was a fundraiser for America's Vet Dogs, a Sayville-based nonprofit that provides service dogs to injured veterans. (August 20, 2011) Photo Credit: T.C. McCarthy

A sea of camouflage stood before Tony Larson as he told people about the cause they were “fighting” for in Coram on Saturday.

Larson, 30, of St. Cloud, Minn., visited Long Island to attend Cousins Paintball’s fourth annual “Paintball for Patriots.” For the second straight year, proceeds are benefiting America’s Vet Dogs, a Smithtown-based nonprofit that provides service dogs to injured veterans.

The crowd was fixated as Larson told the story of his black Lab, Tomme, saving him from committing suicide while driving one day in 2007. Larson, who lost a leg in Iraq in 2005 to a roadside bomb and suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder and severe depression, approached an overpass with the intention of crashing into it. The Lab climbed over the center console of his truck and placed his paws and head in Larson’s lap, snapping him out of the “trance” he was in.

“That was probably my rock bottom,” he said, adding that Tomme has been so therapeutic for him he no longer needs antidepressants. “He doesn’t let me get to that point anymore.”

If the dog senses Larson becoming lethargic or lazy, he’ll pester him until Larson gets up to play.

“My dog has got me to walk down the street unassisted [without a cane], and nobody knows I’m wearing a prosthetic,” he said.

Tomme is trained to help pull him out of the bathtub, balance him when he needs it, and help him retrieve low objects since it’s difficult for him to bend. Tomme will also bring Larson his cellphone when it rings at night, since leaving his bed takes some time.

After Larson spoke, the 100 participants began a friendly game of paintball in the 70 acres of woods off of Granny Road in Coram. Paintball for Patriots is organized by Rich Reiman, an Navy veteran and former Cousins employee. Since its start four years ago, the fundraiser has brought in more than $40,000 to help veterans. This year Cousins raked in more than $10,000 in entree fees and raffles before the start of the game.

Paul Lauria of Holbrook, a paintball rookie, said, “I think that it’s very moving for him [Larson] to come out here and very brave...it takes the level that we want to play at to such a higher tier. If it were up to me, I would come here 10 times over and give to this cause.”

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