Nick Saunders and his dog Winston, Paul Shuping and his dog Wego and other military veterans and their dogs graduated from a program Saturday that recognized the bonds they’ve formed over months of training and the skills the canines learned as service and therapy animals.
Ten human-canine teams graduated from Vets to Vets United, a nonprofit program aimed at improving the lives of both.
The dogs were foundlings or were adopted from shelters or rescue organizations. The veterans needed companions or help coping with physical or mental disabilities.
About 100 family members and other supporters applauded as the dogs, in miniature tasseled caps, posed for photographs with their humans during a ceremony at the Hilton on Hillsborough Street.
Saunders, 29, a Marine veteran of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, was haunted by his combat experiences and the loss of his friend, who died in Afghanistan in 2010.
Saunders, who lives in Jacksonville, had been suffering for years with PTSD when he met Winston, the beagle he was paired with in Vets to Vets.
Saunders has nightmares after witnessing suicides of countrymen overseas. “When he notices me getting out of my element, he’ll wake me up,” Saunders said. Sometimes, Winston will sit all night with Saunders.
Dr. Terry Morris, a veterinarian, started Vets to Vets United in 2012, and since then has matched 20 veterans with dogs. The training takes about two years and includes twice-weekly team lessons that last for at least seven months.
“The bond is developed and strengthened during those two years,” Morris said. Veterans who are lonely, depressed, have PTSD, traumatic brain injury or physical disabilities are eligible for the program.
The charity represents twin passions for Morris – saving dogs from euthanasia and helping veterans. Her father was in the Air Force and was killed when she was young.
“We are looking forward to continuing God’s work,” said Morris, as she prepared for the ceremony.
U.S. Rep. G.K. Butterfield, a Wilson Democrat who represents most of Durham, praised Morris for her hard work and vision in his keynote address, saying the program provides hope to veterans.
“The needs of our veterans go unfilled far too often,” Butterfield said. An estimated 22 veterans commit suicide each day, he said.
“This country has a long way to go to recognize the struggles of veterans,” he said.
Some of the dogs were certified as therapy dogs, which means they can visit patients in hospitals, nursing home residents and the VA.
Some are service dogs, which means they can accompany their owners in public places that don’t typically allow pets.
Some dogs, like Wego, are both. Shuping, a 62-year-old Navy veteran from Raleigh, said Wego helps him handle stairs and other stability problems he developed after a stroke.
Shuping says they’re also a “therapy team” that works with other veterans and senior citizens.
Veterans usually pick their dogs, but Saunders said Winston selected him.
“I was petting a different dog,” Saunders said, remembering his first class. “Winston won’t leave my side. It was a match made in heaven.”