'Battle Buddies' Organization Matches Service Pets and Vets
(Photo by Margo Ann Sullivan)
Initiative trains rescued dogs for service work with disabled veterans.
NEWPORT, R.I. -- He came within a whisker of being put down, but a dog named Charlie Zino has a new lease on life and a new mission.
The 4 ½-year old German Shepherd earned his service dog certification earlier this summer. He's now disabled Army veteran Steve Frye's "battle buddy," so-called after the military's practice of pairing soldiers to help each other in and off the field.
"It is because of Charlie I have a purpose again in life," Frye, 26, said recently. "If I have a nightmare, Charlie will wake me up. If I have an anxiety attack, he pushes up against me until I start patting him," important because patting a dog helps calm people, Frye said. "And if I have flashbacks, he will pull me completely out of public view."
Frye is 100 percent disabled. He found out about PTSD dogs from a news report.
"It's hard to put into words," dog trainer Cyndie Kindell said when asked to explain what Charlie does for Frye. "It's like he's taking him to safety," she said.
In return, Frye has saved Charlie, too, she said. Despite his pedigree -- a German shepherd bred in Neuss, Germany and valued around $2,800 as a puppy -- Charlie was living on borrowed time when Frye and Kindell rescued him.
"Charlie came with a laundry list of problems," Frye said. Specifically, he had been labeled an aggressive dog that would "growl if you got in his face."
Frye and Kindell suspected the dog was abused.
"To be honest, I went there with a lot of negative thoughts," she said, admitting she did not have high hopes this dog would make the grade.
"From what we've gathered," Frye said, "he had three or four different owners." His first owners won him in a raffle; he was a door prize, Frye said, but they didn't keep him. His last owners, a couple, fought over Charlie.
"The husband just loved Charlie to death," Frye said. "The wife was a different story." She gave her spouse an ultimatum -- the dog or her.
"They were going to put him down," Frye said, but then Frye and Kindell of Warren, R.I., went out to take a look.
"Instant bond," Frye said.
So, when they first went to look at the dog, Kindell told Frye to "get in his face and see what he does." Frye did, but Charlie didn't snarl. He heard "a little rumble," but nothing menacing.
"Immediately, I felt comforted," Frye said. "I was not on guard. I was not on edge. It was basically 'love at first sight.'"
Charlie "literally kissed him," Kindell said. "And Steve fell in love with Charlie." Asked how she knew how Charlie would react, Kindell said the she was 98 percent sure ─ based on her observation and some comments from the dog walker ─ Charlie liked men. He only turned aggressive with women, probably because a woman mistreated him.
But she had him on the leash to be safe. And they made several more visits to evaluate the dog before Kindell agreed to train him.
PTSD dogs are rather new, Kindell said, and their popularity reflects heightened public sensitivity to the psychological and brain combat injuries soldiers suffered in Iraq and Afghanistan.
But they're expensive, she said. A PTSD dog can cost more than $20,000, and that's more that a lot of disabled veterans can invest.
Frye didn't have the money, he said. "I gave up for a while," he said, "but then I decided I was going to do it myself and make it happen."
Frye's organization, USA Battle Buddies, trains PTSD dogs, specifically for veterans, essentially continuing work Kindell, now 58, started in 1984. The two ran into each other a year ago while visiting patients at Walter Reed Hospital, she said. Frye overheard her talking about service dogs and approached her, she said. At the time, he was looking for a dog for himself; but when they realized they both lived in Rhode Island, they made plans to talk further, she said. Initially, he wanted to learn how to train dogs himself, she said. Kindell considered the possibility. With a waiting list some 12 years long, she realized she needed help.
"I'll be 70 by the time I get through the list," she said. But ultimately they decided she would train the dogs for USA Battle Buddies.
"It's my goal that vets do not have to pay for the dogs," Frye said. "It's my personal belief I as a soldier and my buddies have done enough for this country."
Other non-profit organizations, like Paws for Purple Hearts and Pets to Vets, and the U.S. government are also trying to help.
Some 200 PTSD dogs are in a two-year pilot program at the Tampa, Fla. Veterans Administration, Kindell said. That VA is the "state of the art" for PTSD issues, she said, but all those animals will go to vets who are Florida residents. She does not know if the pilot program will go nationwide. So far, through Kindell's contacts, USA Battle Buddies has acquired three dogs ─ Charlie, Black and Bozack.
Charlie Zino was named after Sgt. Michael F. Paranzino, of Middletown, R.I., who died in Khandhar, Afghanistan Nov. 5, 2010 of combat wounds. Paranzino's unit called him Zino. Charlie wears one of Paranzino's nametags on his service vest, Frye said.
"When he puts the vest on, he's working," Frye said. According to Kindell, herself a Vietnam-era vet, Charlie is officially certified as a "Balance Walker/ Post Traumatic Stress Disorder" dog.
Frye, 26, suffers from traumatic brain injury, which affects his balance. He also has experienced short-term memory loss, blackouts, anxiety attacks, flashbacks and nightmares ─ all related to combat in Iraq.
His doctors cannot connect his symptoms to one specific injury, he said.
Frye was a U.S. Army infantryman with the 82nd Airborne (the All Americans). He did two tours in Iraq, in 2006 and in 2008, and survived firefights, I.E.D.'s and falls from aircraft.
"I'm a thrill seeker," he admitted. "And I got an extra $100 a month for jumping out of an airplane."
How to Help
To donate, go to www.USABattleBuddies.org and use the PayPal button; or mail a check or money order to USA BATTLE BUDDIES, P.O.Box 922, Newport, RI 02840. The organization can also be reached by phone at 401-603-5007. The group's 501 (c)(3) non-profit organization status is pending.
Pictured: Black, a PTSD dog, with Frye's uncle, USMC veteran George Botelho on the walk to raise money for Battle Buddies USA. (Photo by Margo Ann Sullivan)
What do you think of the USA Battle Buddies organization? Have you heard of veterans paired with service dogs in your area? Tell us your thoughts below!
4 years ago
This reminds me of a story about a cat that I heard the owner had not trained the cat at all and the cat loved everyone and could care less if a stranger stroked her back but then one night when the owner was asleep the cat was on her cat tree at the very top a man broke into the house and when the cat saw this she jumped down on to the intruders face hissing and growling the man fell over and the owners came out to see the intruder covered in cat scratches and bite marks all over his face they were lucky that their cat had been there to save them that night!
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