BALLSTON SPA — Veterans returning from service often experience a multitude of emotions as they re-acclimate to civilian life, including a sense of loneliness and isolation, even when surrounded by loved ones. The Saratoga County Veterans Peer to Peer Mentoring Program has recently added a new program, expanding upon the existing services they provide, to meet the needs of returning military.
Earlier this year, Program Coordinator Amy Hughes began exploring companion animals for veterans, and naturally thought to work in partnership with the Saratoga County Animal Shelter.
“Study after study has shown the therapeutic benefits of pet ownership,” said Hughes. “What better way than to have these lost or abandoned animals find homes with veterans and be trained as Emotional Support Animals?”
An Emotional Support Animal (ESA) is a companion animal that provides therapeutic benefit of affection and companionship for individuals suffering from various mental and emotional conditions, such as anxiety or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
“That therapeutic value, however, is not intended to take the place of services the veteran may need,” said Frank McClement, Director of the Saratoga County Veterans Services Agency.
The new Vets and Pets Program is currently being offered to veterans receiving services through the Peer to Peer Program. “It’s important to connect a veteran with services first,” said Hughes, “then the mentoring program, and then a pet. It’s a gradual process that may or may not end in adoption, because it is important that there be a good match between the veteran and pet.”
Veterans are asked to consider volunteering at the Animal Shelter, which gives the animals time to socialize with them. The program includes volunteer trainers who have offered to assist preparing the pets and veterans for their futures together, although pets do not have to be trained by a professional to be licensed as an Emotional Support Animal. The program also assists with fees and getting the animals registered as Emotional Support Animals, which protects these animals under federal law from no-pet policies in housing and other situations where the veteran would need the pet.
“It’s mutually beneficial,” said Saratoga County Administrator Spencer P. Hellwig. “Not only do veterans have the opportunity to enjoy the benefits of having an animal as a part of their lives, but the pets can lead a happy life with a home, companionship, and an owner who is willing to take on the responsibility.”
Hellwig said the Saratoga County Animal Shelter, on a typical month, has about 100 dogs and 30 cats needing homes. Some are strays and some are from families who are no longer in a position to care for them.
Giovanni Sorrentino of Malta was serving as a pilot in the Air Force as a First Lieutenant, stationed in Texas, when he was hurt in a training exercise that resulted in a L4-L5 vertebrae spinal fusion, requiring a titanium plate and three screws in his spine. “I can’t tell you what it was like to lose my wings and know I’d never fly again,” said Sorrentino. “I spent my whole life training to become a fighter pilot.”
He was a mentee in the Peer-to-Peer program, and is new to the Vets and Pets program. His dog, Mia, is a Morkie (a purebred Yorkshire Terrier and a purebred Maltese cross).
“I actually got my puppy on my own and raised her as a therapy dog,” said Sorrentino. “The program helped me get her licensed so I can bring her with me out and about. Mia has been more powerful and therapeutic than any medication a doctor could write. There’s nothing like the emotional and physical support of a companion at all times. She depends on me and I depend on her. Vets and Pets provides the support of an animal that’s trained and certified, taking time with the shelter making sure you’re paired with an animal that is a good fit. Truthfully, the dog kind of picks you.”
Matt Catlin of Niskayuna served in Iraq in 2006 as an E5 Sergeant, an Army medic. Currently he is a hyperbaric oxygen therapy technician at Albany Memorial. His American Pit Bull Terrier was a stray dog at a Native American reservation in upstate New York. “His name is Gwaho, pronounced WAH-hoe. It’s a Mohawk name that means wolf,” said Catlin.
Catlin added, “I had a difficult time when I came home. There was no one in my life who could associate with my experiences. They had no idea what I went through. Nothing is like the experience over there, and I couldn’t stop thinking about all the patients I tried to save, and the ones I couldn’t.”
Catlin described how veterans start to lose their ability to socially interact, feeling isolated when surrounded by people who have not been through similar experiences. “What better way to regain social interaction than starting with a pet?” said Catlin. “They don’t judge you. When you make a mistake, they don’t make you feel bad about it. They support you through good and bad times, completely unconditionally, which is difficult to expect from people. It’s fitting for the Peer to Peer Mentoring to start providing a service animal function to fill that needed emotional support.”
The Saratoga County Veterans Peer to Peer Mentoring Program pairs established veterans with returning veterans who are experiencing posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or other re-acclimation challenges. Personalized and informal, these pairings yield relationships intended to ease the transition from combat to civilian life.
“It’s a great program, so needed,” said Catlin. “You’re with peers who’ve worn the same uniform, had the same goals and ambitions to save the world, who can say ‘I understand your pain, and there is light at the end of the tunnel.’ Programs like this one helps veterans gain good coping mechanisms, and not slip into drugs or alcohol.”
Drew Torres of Glens Falls served as a sergeant in the Marine Corps in communications and artillery. He is from Wilmington near Lake Placid, and moved to Glens Falls to study IT networking at Adirondack Community College, which is where he met Hughes and heard about the Peer to Peer Mentoring program. “I thought this could help me meet other veterans, people I can relate to, I guess because it’s easier to talk on the same plane,” he said.
Torres and Kaia, an American Stafford terrier, bulldog and coonhound mix, are part of the Vets and Pets program, Torres has recently become a mentor in the Peer to Peer program. “We go through training, learning how to talk with someone who has PTSD or anxiety issues,” he said. “When I first moved here there was no one to talk to. I would definitely have considered becoming a mentee if I had known about the program then. It makes a difference, one veteran helping another.”
“The Saratoga County VA program is one of the best in the country,” said Sorrentino. “I went to one in Texas, in New York City, and here – and this program is unparalleled. I’m very grateful to be a part of it.”
For more information about the Vets and Pets or Peer to Peer Mentoring programs, please call 518-884-4999 or visit www.veteranspeertopeer.org. For information about adopting a pet outside of the Vets and Pets program, call the shelter at 518-885-4113 or visit saratogacountyny.gov and navigate to the shelter page.