Soldier’s Best Friend

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Veterans returning from war sometimes do not return alone. They may be accompanied by post-traumatic stress disorder or traumatic brain injuries. Soldier’s Best Friend is a Glendale-based organization that pairs up service or therapeutic companion dogs with soldiers suffering the impacts of war. Most dogs are rescued from local shelters. We’ll take a look at veterans who are benefiting from service dogs provided by Soldier’s Best Friend.

TED SIMONS: We wrap up our Veterans Day special with an effort to help veterans suffering from mental wounds. Arizona is home to more than half a million veterans, including 150,000 who served in Iraq and Afghanistan. Transitioning from military to civilian life can be difficult especially for those dealing with medical issues. Producer Christina Estes and photographer Steve Aron show us How an Arizona veterinarian came up with a plan to help.

CHRISTINA ESTES: 16-month-old lucky is like most puppies.

JASON BEDORE: He is full of energy.

CHRISTINA ESTES: And he loves toys stuffed with peanut butter.

JASON BEDORE: Good boy.

CHRISTINA ESTES: It's never easy to separate a dog from his treat but in lucky's case --

JASON BEDORE: Once you put on the vest, once you put on the collar, he knows he's going to work.

CHRISTINA ESTES: Work means protecting a man who spent a decade protecting others.

JASON BEDORE: I did five tours to Iraq in 2007. I was hit with a improvised explosive device, I.E.D., and sustained injuries, from head injuries to knee injuries.

CHRISTINA ESTES: After years of surgeries and therapy, staff sergeant Jason Bedore medically retired.

JASON BEDORE: I had a disconnect. I didn't know what to do.

CHRISTINA ESTES: A bad knee was the most visible scar while the stress and brain injury stayed mostly hidden, except from Jason's family.

JASON BEDORE: I always had to have my wife with me. I don't go to the grocery store. I don't go -- I hate traffic. So I take the same route that I know won't have traffic.

CHRISTINA ESTES: Jason was fortunate his wife understood better than most. She also served in Iraq. That's where they met.

JASON BEDORE: My wife does do a lot, spends a lot of her time taking care of me. It's like she's taking care of two kids in my daughter and myself.

CHRISTINA ESTES: Until Lucky came along. Someone discovered the Lab mix and took him to a shelter where Jason adopted him.

JASON BEDORE: Through Soldier's Best Friend, he was able to help me I guess come out of my shell.

CHRISTINA ESTES: Soldier's Best Friend is a nonprofit that pairs veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder or traumatic brain injuries with dogs to be trained as service or therapeutic companion animals. Jason and lucky are halfway through the program. They meet with a professional trainer once a week and join other veteran and dogs for public outings, visits to stores, restaurant, and the airport. Lucky's biggest job is to help calm Jason, especially during nightmares.

JASON BEDORE: He's there so I know that it's okay. If I wake up from a dream or I'm acting out the dream, he'll wake me up. He'll interrupt me, whether it's with him rubbing his body against me. It brings comfort.

MAC PIEPER: He's not going anywhere unless I'm going with him.

CHRISTINA ESTES: After months of training, former army sergeant Mac Pieper and his dog recently graduated from the program.

MAC PIEPER: It makes me really happy and proud because I was able to teach him how to do it and make him understand that he needed to do it and it makes me feel safe because... He's a good judge of character.

CHRISTINA ESTES: While serving three tours in Iraq, Mac endured multiple traumatic brain injuries. He was also diagnosed with PTSD and then four months after leaving the military, he was hit while riding his motorcycle. The driver took off, leaving his bleeding, broken body on the street and stealing much of his eyesight.

MAC PIEPER: It's called bitemporal peripheral vision loss and basically, it means that on my right eye, I can't see anything from basically the middle of my eye out and on the left side, the same thing but from the left side.

CHRISTINA ESTES: The brain injuries make it hard for Mac to concentrate and recall things.

MAC PIEPER: I'll ask my fiancee what's going on for today and she'll tell me. And then five minutes later I'll be like so what are we doing today? Because I don't remember it. I don't remember asking her.

CHRISTINA ESTES: And then there are the angry outbursts.

MAC PIEPER: After my accident, they got to the point where I would roll down the window and start screaming at people that were not driving the way I thought they should be or walking down the middle of the parking lot when we're trying to drive through the parking lot. And things like that. And I actually had to have Krista explain to me we live in a state where people carry guns. And they might not just shoot me, they might shoot her, too. And that kind of -- that really made me want to get some help and, you know, make myself better.

CHRISTINA ESTES: Cal is always there to calm Mac and to watch his back.

MAC PIEPER: We'll stop somewhere at the grocery store, I'll be looking at a shelf or something like that and he'll automatically turn and face back and be watching the people that are walking by. And making sure that people aren't coming up behind me and doing anything crazy.

CHRISTINA ESTES: The idea for Soldier's Best Friend came from veterinarian John Burnham.

JOHN BURNHAM: I wanted to help military. And I also wanted to help with our overpopulation of pets.

CHRISTINA ESTES: About half the dogs come from shelter and rescue groups. The program has graduated more than 50 pairs but it's touched many more lives.

JOHN BURNHAM: Just the other night we had a graduation and I had a mother that has been the caretaker of this veteran and she put her arms around me and hugged me and thanked me because now, she can sleep in because her daughter can take her kids to school now to where before, mom always had to do that because the daughter was not willing to leave home. So those are the kinds of stories we hear on a regular basis.

MAC PIEPER: Let's go. If it wasn't for him, I don't know that I wouldn't have been shot at already.

JASON BEDORE: Good boy. I don't know how to thank him. It's amazing.

CHRISTINA ESTES: It sounds like Soldier's Best Friend has more than one lucky guy.

TED SIMONS: Soldier's Best Friend offers training in Phoenix, Prescott, Tucson and Sierra Vista at no cost to veterans, thanks to volunteers and donations. For more information, visit soldiersbestfriend.org. Thursday on "Arizona Horizon," we'll look at the latest in foreign affairs with former NATO ambassador Kurt Volker. That's at 5:30 and 10 on the next "Arizona Horizon." That is it for now. I'm Ted Simons. Thank you so much for joining us on this special Veterans Day edition of "Arizona Horizon." You have a great evening.

"Arizona Horizon" is made possible by contributions from the Friends of Eight, members of your Arizona PBS station. Thank you.

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