Story by Liesel Schmidt
Photography Courtesy of Veterans Moving Forward
It’s a sad fact of life, but we live in a post-9/11 world. As a result, we have countless men and women living with the scars of time spent in warzones—psychological, emotional and physical scars that sometimes can make living a “normal” life challenging. But we also have generations before, from wars and conflicts that predate the atrocities of 2001. For those veterans, there can be a chasm, a lack of services that is available to the vets of today’s wars. As a vet who fell into that void herself, Karen Jeffries decided to change the status quo.
The impetus for that change came when Jeffries found that her husband, despite his need for a service dog, did not qualify because service dog organizations only accepted applications from post-9/11 veterans. With that hurdle in her way, Jeffries took measures to start her own nonprofit, which serves veterans from all wars as well as those with physical or mental health challenges.
Calling it Veterans Moving Forward (VMF), Jeffries, along with the like-minded partner she found in Robert Larson, founded an organization that brings life-changing help to veterans who previously fell into the gap of services. With the mission to provide service dogs, facility and emotional support dogs to veterans of any generation who served honorably and have physical and/or mental challenges resulting from military operations, accident or disease experienced during or subsequent to their military service, VMF is open to applicants from the continental United States, Hawaii or Alaska. Service dogs are provided at no cost to the veteran or their family.
Since it was established in 2010, VMF works with numerous veterans and to date has placed 25 dogs with vets. “We currently have 40 applications in the pipeline and receive at least one application each week,” notes Chief Operating Officer Lori Sittner. “Our goal is to place four dogs each year, as it takes two years to train a dog. One of the challenges to how many dogs we can have in the training center is size, and we are currently in a small space, so that limits the number of dogs that we can work with at one time. Our current training center only accommodates six dogs at a time, so our long-term goal is to move to a space that is about 10 acres. We plan to have a training center as well as a house on the property so that our veterans can stay on-site when they are training with their service dog.”
In addition to the obstacle of space is that of funding. “The cost of training a service dog runs between $40,000 to $50,000. Funding is always a challenge for any nonprofit, and as you can imagine, getting funding for a training center is monumentally so,” Sittner says. VMF is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit and depends on money from grants, fundraising and the generosity of donors that include both businesses and individuals. VMF does not currently receive any government funding to pay operating costs.
As many veterans are in need of VMF’s services, the organization knows the importance of finding dogs that fit the needs of those vets. “Our dogs are chosen from reputable breeders in Virginia and West Virginia that our program director knows personally,” Sittner explains. “We also are given full information about the litters when they are born. The veterans who come to us must all go through an extensive application process, and as they go through the application process, the program director/head trainer identifies a dog for that veteran based on the information listed on their application. Once the veteran is approved to receive a service dog, they are matched with their dog. The dog is then specifically trained for that veteran based on their unique needs.”
Aside from all the physical aid that service dogs can offer, what makes VMF and organizations like it so crucial is the emotional impact that the service dogs have on the veterans with whom they are matched. “It’s a terribly sad statistic, but 22 veterans a day commit suicide,” says Sittner. “There have been numerous studies showing that, after receiving a PTSD service dog, veterans self-report significant improvements to PTSD symptoms in addition to decreased depression and anxiety, and their quality of life improves. That’s huge. And making that kind of difference is why we do what we do. Our greatest accomplishment is in changing the lives of our veterans when they receive their service dog and we have seen such great results reflected in the ways that our veterans approach life now.”
As simple as the presence of a dog may be, for those vets whose physical or emotional needs overwhelm what they can do alone, that dog can make all the difference. It’s a way to give back to those who have given so much of themselves and a way to help them move forward to a life more fully lived.
For more information on Veterans Moving Forward, visit www.vetsfwd.org.