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Analysis/Opinion: Vets and Pets: Wounded Warriors and the Animals That Help Them Heal

Dava Guerin and Keven Ferris, the authors of “Unbreakable Bonds: The Mighty Moms and Wounded Warriors of Walter Reed,” have published another fine book about wounded veterans and their supporters.

In their previous book they offered stories about the love and sacrifices the mothers—“The Mighty Moms”—of wounded veterans made in order to help their sons and daughters heal and adjust.

In their new book they offer stories about others who help the wounded veterans. The others are dogs, cats, birds, horses and even a potbellied pig.

In “Vets and Pets: Wounded Warriors and the Animals That Help Them Heal” the authors offer 15 stories about suffering veterans and the service and companion animals they bond with.

“For many of us, coming home to or cuddling with a beloved pet is one of life’s great joys. No matter how your day has gone, the unbridled excitement of your pet when you walk in the door really can make your problems seem a little less grim,” former first lady Barbara Bush writes in the foreword to the book. “Now, imagine for a moment the power of that same bond between our military veterans and their pets. For years we’ve all heard stories of how that relationship not only changes but saves lives. Their pets can make dark days brighter, the helpless feel helpful, the lonely feel loved.

“It was a love story begging to be told.”

As the authors note in the book, the ASPCA estimates there are more than 70 million dogs living in households in America, as well as 37 million cats and millions of other creatures. Americans spend more than $60 billion a year on them.

The authors also note that the Defense Department estimates that more than 300,000 veterans have been injured during the war on terrorism in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere. These veterans not only suffer from physical injuries, they also suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), traumatic brain injury (TBI) and other issues. And there are the disabled veterans from Vietnam, Korea and World War II as well.

Service dogs aid the wounded veterans in their day-to-day struggles. They perform tasks such as pulling a manual wheelchair, retrieving dropped items and even turning on a light. Some dogs aid their veterans by sensing or interrupting a panic attack and by physically pulling the veteran toward the exit to escape a stressful environment. The authors tell us that service dogs relieve stress, combat loneliness and isolation, and offer unconditional love and support.

And not only dogs aid wounded veterans, one discovers by reading this book.

“They are strong, focused, powerful, fiercely independent, and at the top of the food chain. Birds of prey and warfighters share other traits as well, including the willingness to fight to survive,’ the authors write in their story of a veteran who was helped by his working with American Bald Eagles and other birds of prey. “They are birds of a feather—with the ability to help each other heal in the most unexpected way.”

And not only dogs aid wounded veterans, one discovers by reading this book.

In their story about a Vietnam veteran named Patrick Bradley, the authors explain how the large, predatory birds in a Largo, Fla., wildlife habitat are missing limbs, parts of their brain, or an eye, a talon or have broken wings. These wounded birds are teamed with wounded veterans and the two hurting warriors bond much like a dog and a wounded veteran.

In another story called “The Cowboy Marine,” Col. John Mayer, commander of the U.S. Marine Wounded Warrior Regiment, used therapeutic horseback riding to help his wounded warriors. But he soon discovered that his Marines were bored with trail riding.

He then partnered the Wounded Warrior Regiment’s riding program with the Semper Fi Fund and created the Jinx McCain Horseman Program. The inspiration for this program was Col. Jinx McCain, a Marine who served in World War II, Korea and Vietnam and earned four Purple Hearts. In the 1960s he took amputees out on trail rides to boost morale.

“Like the legendary colonel, the program named for him emphasizes the connection between Marine and horse and the benefits for each,” the authors explain. “But forget riding for pleasure. Sign up for the Jinx McCain Horsemanship Program, and you’ll be put to work. Hard work. Dirty, dusty, dawn-to-dusk work. Cowboy work.”

The wounded warriors are taken to ranches in Arizona, Wyoming and Montana and put to work herding and branding cattle for two-week periods. They are not bored and the challenges of ranch life helps bring back their confidence.

The 15 emotional, entertaining and insightful stories illustrate the amazing and heart-warming relationships between companion and therapy animals and wounded veterans.

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