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'Paws For Patriots' Matches Vets, Guide Dogs

On this Independence Day weekend, we couldn’t think of a better time to spotlight Southeastern Guide Dogs' Paws for Patriots program and a couple remarkable graduates.

Paws for Patriots was started in 2006 and pairs visually impaired veterans with professionally trained guide dogs. Like all of Southeastern Guide Dogs' visually impaired students, the veterans spend 26 days on campus learning the intricacies of working with a guide.

In the past five years, Paws for Patriots has matched more than 150 veterans with guide dogs. Here are two of those teams:

Michael Jernigan & Brittani

Jernigan, 32, is a United States Marine Corporal who was medically retired in December of 2005 after being blinded by a roadside bomb in Iraq. Aside from taking his sight, the explosion also crushed his entire forehead, severely injured his right hand and left knee and left him with a traumatic brain injury.

After working hard to recover, Cpl. Jernigan took steps to regain his independence, one of which included getting a guide dog. Brittani, a lovely yellow goldador (labrador and golden retriever cross), came into Jernigan’s life in the spring of 2007 through Southeastern Guide Dogs’ Paws for Patriots program, and the pair has never looked back since.

With Brittani leading the way, Jernigan has gone back to college, gotten married and been instrumental in spreading the word about the help available to vets returning from combat with injuries. He is a shining example of the tenacity of the human spirit. Jernigan will be honored this Sunday by the Tampa Bay Rays, who have invited him and fellow Southeastern graduate Eric Kallal to throw out the first pitches before the team's 1:40 p.m. game against the St. Louis Cardinals at Tropicana Field.

In addition to providing guide dogs to blinded soldiers, the Paws for Patriots program also provides Veteran Assistance Dogs to veterans suffering from post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Veteran Assistance Dogs are taught very specific commands that help to mitigate the veteran’s PTSD, such as blocking to give them more personal space, watching behind the veteran for anyone possibly approaching and providing physical contact to dissuade anxiety. These dogs are also taught to assist with loss of balance, which is often a side effect from certain medications or for veterans who have suffered the loss of a limb.

Shawn Mello & Harpo

The Army Special Forces is a tough call of duty, and Master Sergeant (Ret) Shawn Mello gave his all for more than 20 years, including tours in the Middle East. While training for combat diving, Mello was ejected from a boat and run over. Multiple fractures, vascular and nerve damage and numerous surgeries finally resulted in a lower leg amputation. Years of combat and the tragic loss of his leg resulted in a new battle for Mello: wrestling with the tumultuous effects of PTSD.

Mello fought hard to regain his health and active lifestyle. And now, thanks to Southeastern’s Paws for Patriots program, he relies on Harpo, a stout goldador fitted with a specialty balance harness.

“Physically, if my prosthesis isn’t fitting correctly or if I have phantom pain, Harpo acts as a moving cane,” Mello said. “Mentally — he’s there for me. He brings a calming presence. He gives me that look that says, ‘it’s all good.’ With Harpo, I’m better able to cope.”

Paws for Patriots therapy dogs have also been placed at military medical centers like the Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C. and the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Md., to spread encouragement to soldiers during their grueling physical therapy as they learn to recover from their injuries. Visits from the therapy dogs in the rehabilitation rooms are usually the highlight of the soldiers’ day, giving them a taste of companionship and unconditional support, helping them to forget the pain for just a moment.

So, on this patriotic weekend, be sure to thank a soldier for our freedom and independence, and we’ll thank our dogs for their support of our veterans.

TAMPA BAY RAYS TO HONOR GRADS

Also, one of the photos I submitted showed up sideways - my file has it upright, so not sure why that happened. Thanks! Jennifer

Ginny Pellizzaro July 01, 2011 at 11:17 AM
What a great tribute representing a wonderful organization! Another awesome article Jennifer. Happy 4th of July!!
Laurie July 03, 2011 at 12:02 PM
Great article Jennifer. Thanks for spreading the word. Enjoy the weekend.
maryann clark April 28, 2013 at 04:25 PM
I am trying to get an exact address or phone number to support Paws for Patriots, can you help with this, MaryAnn clark mclark10.3@verizon.net tanks

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