Many of our veterans returning from the Wars experience invisible wounds. In most instances you can't see a wheelchair or a prosthetic leg. Yet nonetheless, many come home with invisible wounds that are as severe as physical ones. "Their suffering goes so deep, it touches the soul," said one of CNN's Top 2012 Heroes.
Having just celebrated Veteran's Day, it's important to note an estimated one in five veterans who return from the fields of Iraq and Afghanistan are likely to be afflicted by post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The disorder commonly characterized by flashbacks, nightmares and a heightened state of alertness and anxiety has affected twenty percent of the 2 million U.S. troops deployed in these two war zones since 2001.
Mary Cortani who was named one of this year's top 10 CNN Heroes heads up the non-profit 'Operation Freedom Paws' to assist veterans cope with life when they return from the Middle East. The initiative is based on Cortani's program which helps veterans train their own service dogs in northern California, where she matches veterans with dogs from shelters or rescue groups.
"It's hard enough to come out of the service and get back into civilian life," notes Cortani, who served in the Army from 1975-1984. "But now they have an injury that people don't understand. They have to find a way to balance what they're feeling, what they've experienced, with everyday life."
"Service dogs are but one tool, but they're a very important tool, in the healing process for our veterans," adds Cortani.
Dogs can be trained to assist veterans in a number of ways. For example, one of her dogs named Iggie wakes returned veteran James McQuoid from nightmares, turns off his lights and assists in creating space between and others in public places. The dog also helps his master keep his anxiety level down in stressful situations.
The way it works, veterans are taught to focus on the dog versus the environment, where they become conscious of reading the canine's body language. "If they start to have a panic attack because they're getting overwhelmed or the anxiety is so strong, they'll actually stop and kneel down and hug the dog," says Cortani.
"When a veteran trains their own service dog, there are immediate benefits right off the bat," she said. "They have a mission and a purpose again. It gives them something to focus on and to complete. It gives them a sense of security and safety. ... They know they're not alone. They've always got their buddy at the end of the leash."
Operation Freedoms Paws, which is supported by donations and community involvement, provides veterans with vests, leashes, collars, bowls, food and initial medical care and vaccines for the dog. The training is also free.
In the future, Cortani hopes to expand Operation Freedom Paws, building a permanent training facility, hiring full-time mentor-trainers and establishing satellite locations with canine education units across California and the United States.
“If we could reach 10 percent (of veterans with injuries), we would be doing an amazing job,” she said. “Let’s get our service members in uniform back to being productive members of society.”
Mary's honor of being one of the Top 10 Heroes is part of the CNN Heroes program for everyday people who give back to their communities. Learn more about the program and how to vote in it. For those interested in voting for Mary as this year's 'number one' top hero, you can cast your vote here.