FORT BELVOIR, Va. –
They come in all breeds, shapes and sizes, padding quietly at their handler’s side. Indispensable working partners and companions, these four-legged heroes help the disabled lead a more independent life.
More than 28 service dog charities are part of the 2019 Combined Federal Campaign. Seven are affiliated with military and veterans support group organizations.
Atlas, a large and heavy-boned Greater Swiss Mountain service dog, helps Defense Logistics Agency Energy paralegal specialist Adam Porras with balance issues and post-traumatic stress disorder.
“Atlas provides me the confidence I lack to be out in public,” Porras said. “He provides a buffer of personal space to keep people from getting to close to me.”
Porras, a DLA employee since 2018, was an Army infantryman serving combat tours in Kosovo, Iraq and Afghanistan. He retired from military service after 20 years to the permanently disabled list.
“I was at Walter Reed receiving psychiatric treatment when I met Mike Sergeant who help train service dogs for the rehabilitation center. He recommended a psychiatric service dog – who works with a handler who suffers from panic attacks, anxiety attack, PTSD or other mental disorders.”
The national not-for-profit charity, Vets Helping Heroes, provided Porras with his service dog Atlas. Atlas is trained to never leave his handler’s side.
“Due to my traumatic brain injury, I have balance issues,” Porras explained. “If I start to tilt, Atlas will balance me. He helps me climb up hills.”
The American Disability Act defines a service dog as a dog specifically trained to perform work for a person with a disability. These include such life-altering injuries as: blind; with amputated limbs; spinal cord injuries; traumatic brain injuries; or suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.
Service dogs provide life changing assistance for their handlers.
“As part of having TBI, I can be oblivious to certain things,” Porras said. “Atlas will bark and tell me there is somebody present.”
Atlas and Porras have worked together for eight years.
“Under the eyes of the law, Atlas is equivalent to a wheel chair,” Porras said. “I take the Virginia Railway Express to work every day from Stafford. Atlas has helped me ride the train. Prior to him, you wouldn’t catch me on public transportation, train, bus and plane. He has even made it easier for me to fly.”
James Patterson, a specialist in nuclear, biological and chemical warfare, is the supervisory watch officer at the Defense Threat Reduction Agency Joint Operations Center.
A U.S. Marine who served in the Gulf War and through several deployments to Iraq, Patterson deals with severe injuries, memories war and suffers from severe post-traumatic stress disorder.
“I suffered an injured back and a broken neck when I was on active duty,” Patterson said. “There are days when bending over can be very challenging to me.”
Patterson’s first service dog was Honey Girl, a yellow Labrador provided by the Southeastern Guide Dog's Paws for Patriots program. The program pairs guide dogs with visually impaired solders, veteran assistance dogs with veterans suffering from PTSD and place facility therapy dogs at major military medical centers.
“Before I had Honey Girl, I isolated myself from everyone, Patterson said. “Honey Girl provided me with constant unconditional love and support I needed.”
After nine years of service, Honey Girl retired. Requiring more physical support, Patterson needed a bigger, sturdier dog. His current working partner is Outlaw, an imposing 120 pound Rottweiler donated by the Disabled American Vets.
Wyoming the Wonder Dog
Didlake employee Hunter Van Pelt relies on his golden Labrador, Wyoming, for all his daily needs – from taking off his socks top opening doors and picking up things on the floor. Van Pelt, who has cerebral palsy, works as an equipment operator, two nights a week, buffing and scrubbing floors throughout the McNamara Headquarters Complex.
Pelt received Wyoming from Canine Companions for Independence, a nonprofit organization that provides highly trained assistance dogs to children and adults with disabilities.
Founded in 1975, Canine Companions for Independence is a non-profit organization that enhances the lives of people with disabilities by providing highly trained assistance dogs. According to the organization’s website, 339 assistance dogs were placed in 2018 to handicapped individuals.
Wyoming is a mobility dog, trained to assist people with disabilities with walking, balance and transferring from place to place. She has been trained to respond to more than 40 advanced commands.
It's late Tuesday afternoon, Van Pelt and Wyoming are on their cleaning rounds.
“I absolutely love this job and being at DLA,” Van Pelt said. “It’s a very positive place to be with the elevators and electric door openers, it makes it easier to work.”
The Defense Logistics Agency’s 2019 goal is $274,000 and its theme – Grow Our Giving – highlights ambitions to increase the number of participants. The 2019 campaign ends Jan. 12, 2020. Donors can choose from over 20,000 nonprofit charitable organizations that support causes ranging from homeless veterans to cancer. Since it began in 1961, federal employees have raised more than $8.3 billion.