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How these animals helped heal wounded warriors

During the Revolutionary War’s Battle of Germantown in 1777, a terrier was spotted wandering on the boundary between the British and the Americans.

George Washington, a longtime dog owner, cleaned and fed the pup, and identified him by his tag as belonging to British Gen. William Howe. Believing that the love of a pet transcended the hatred of war, Washington called a brief truce, and returned the dog to the enemy general.

With more than 300,000 members of the American military injured in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the importance of animals in helping soldiers heal is understood by many today, just as a pet’s love was cherished by Gen. Washington.

In their new book, “Vets and Pets: Wounded Warriors and the Animals That Help Them Heal” (Skyhorse Publishing), Dava Guerin and Kevin Ferris share tales of wounded soldiers taking solace from a beloved animal.

Patrick Bradley joined the Army in 1967 to fight in Vietnam. He was in his bunk one night when he was rattled by a Viet Cong mortar shell.

“I had shrapnel all over my body, massive wounds,” Bradley tells the authors. He spent almost a year recovering at Walter Reed Medical Center, and some of his wounds plague him to this day.

Add to this the cold reception many Vietnam veterans received after returning home, and the emotional scars, too, lingered.

The saving grace for Bradley came when his doctors recommended he participate in a “unique program sponsored by the Canadian government that was looking for people to study bald eagles.”

So Bradley, a trained survivalist, was soon “wandering around two and a half million acres of Canadian wilderness with only his backpack and a few months’ supply of food.”

For months, with “only the sound of his voice and the screeches, chirps, and calls of Mother Nature all around him,” he immersed himself in the life of the bald eagle, fell in love with birds and, in the process, overcame the trauma of battle.

“What I was doing with the birds helped me open up again,” he says. He got a degree in zoology, and established a career designing educational programs about birds and working with them in various capacities.

When his son, Skyler, wound up with PTSD after 17 years in the Army, Bradley brought him to a nature preserve and said, “Son, why don’t you grab a bird, put on a glove, and go for a walk.”

Soon, Skyler was taking daily walks with a bald eagle named Abiaka, and the camaraderie helped bring him out of his shell.

Soon, Bradley began bringing veterans in en masse to commune with birds. He, Skyler and several others formed the Avian Veteran Alliance, and Bradley estimates more than 1,800 veterans have been helped to date.

Soon, Bradley began bringing veterans in en masse to commune with birds. He, Skyler and several others formed the Avian Veteran Alliance, and Bradley estimates more than 1,800 veterans have been helped to date.

When US Army Spc. Tyler Jeffries stepped on an IED in Afghanistan in 2012, he tried to joke through the terror, despite losing both legs at or below the knee in the blast.

“I was laughing and joking with my guys as they were applying the tourniquets,” he says in the book. “But deep down, I was really scared and wasn’t sure if I would ever go home again.”

A two-year recovery process at Walter Reed left him with prosthetic legs. But they were heavy and painful, and he had a tough time readapting to civilian life. On a fellow veteran’s recommendation, he connected with a service dog named Apollo, and trained extensively to teach the animal to brace when he needed support, and how to walk at the right speed for Jeffries’ new legs.

Jeffries has had Apollo for four years now, and the dog has transformed his life. He’s no longer afraid to be seen in public, fearing ridicule and stares from people.

“Thanks to Apollo, I have grown so much,” Jeffries says. “He got me out of the house more, helped me become more independent, and took the pressure off. Now, when I walk into a room, people run up to Apollo. They could care less about me!”

Throughout Stefanie Mason’s upbringing in Wilmington, Del., horses were a constant presence in her life. So after an accident involving an armored SUV during her third deployment to Kabul left her in grave condition, it made perfect sense that horses would play a role in her recovery.

Mason, an army reservist, required years of painful therapy after surviving a traumatic brain injury, nine facial fractures, a leg fracture and a back injury in 2010.

Early on, one of the key tools of her recovery was her participation in horse-therapy sessions for wounded soldiers.

Only several months past the accident, she was already asking, “Can I start trotting?” Now, Mason has come so far that she’s planning to participate in equestrian competitions again, and regards her horse, Bo, as a special partner.

“The longer you work with him, the more you get to know each other,” she says, “and the stronger the bond you will have with each other.”

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