Cpl. Justin Bunce doesn’t like doing his physical therapy exercises for his arm. In fact, he sometimes refuses. But hand him a brush and tell him Breeze, a yellow lab, needs to be groomed, and he’s happy to help out.
Brushing uses the same motion as the exercises that are supposed to help him regain mobility in his left side after being injured in service by an improvised explosive device while deployed as a Marine in Iraq.
Breeze spends most of her time at the NeuroRestorative house in Germantown where Bunce lives, spending time with him and the five other military service members living there on their way to recovery from brain injuries. She is being trained as a service dog and once she graduates from training, Warrior Canine Connection will pair her with a veteran.
Warrior Canine Connection uses dogs for therapy and teaches service members to train service dogs that will assist veterans. The organization recently came to an agreement with the state to use part of Seneca Creek State Park in Germantown to expand its program.
NeuroRestorative is a nationwide rehabilitation company for people recovering from brain injuries. The company’s Germantown residence hosts military service members as a midway point between the hospital and moving home. Since the company began working with Warrior Canine Connection in the summer of 2012, “we noticed immediately” the changes in the veterans interacting with dogs, said lead Life Skills Trainer Katie Gorman.
“There’s just a certain therapy that dogs can provide that people can’t,” Gorman said.
Founded three years ago by Rick Yount, Warrior Canine Connection works with veterans at facilities including Walter Reed in Bethesda, Fort Belvoir in Virginia, and several in California.
On Thursday visitors from NeuroRestorative spent time with the dogs at Warrior Canine Connection’s Brookeville headquarters. While none are trainers yet, Army Sgt. Edward Wade, who returned from Iraq in 2004 after being injured by an IED, said he would like to become one.
One of the puppies, Lily, sat on Army 1st. Lt. Jonathon Kohl’s lap. Lily takes the Metro every day so she can learn to assist a veteran with the commuting process, though the program hasn’t paired her with anyone yet. Jonathon’s wife, Aileen Kohl, sat next to him, reminding him of things when his memory failed him and translating his whispered mumbles when needed. Following a helicopter crash in Afghanistan in March 2013, Jonathon was in a coma for 140 days, she said. On Thursday he sat in a wheelchair petting Lily and talking to his wife and puppy program manager Cheryl Tipton. Aileen said Jonathon has relearned how to talk, eat and move in the last several months. He’s working on being able to walk again and his memory is coming back slowly. But he has a good sense of humor about it, laughing when he confuses cats with dogs or asks the same questions repeatedly. With the new land at Seneca Creek Park, Warrior Canine Connection will be able to expand its programs and veterans will have a larger space where they can come for therapy, to train dogs, or just relax in a quiet place outdoors.
The 25-year lease agreement allows the organization to use the Schaeffer Farm Area of the park, where it will build new facilities for apprentice service dog training, art and music therapy, acupuncture, equine therapy, and farming and gardening. According to Maryland Park Service Superintendent Nita Settina, in exchange for over $700,000 in investments Warrior Canine Connection plans to put into the site, the first 10 years of rent will be forgiven. After 10 years, the organization will pay $1,500 per month, with a rent increase of $500 every five years.
Gorman said she has a hard time putting into words the impact Warrior Canine Connection has had on the veterans she works with. Having the dogs around the NeuroRestorative house, the patients start getting more sleep, have fewer outbursts and their outlooks become more positive. She remembers one veteran who no one could get through to until a dog did. He was “in a dark, dark place,” she said.
With one of the dogs, “you could see from afar him smiling, him laughing, and that’s all he wanted was someone to hang out with, someone to listen,” she said.
Training dogs is a healing process for many service members, and a way for them to help other veterans.
“They have to be coached to teach the dogs that the world is a safe place,” Yount explained. “They have to convince themselves the same.” It also allows the veterans to focus on the dogs instead of themselves in interactions.
One woman who lived at the NeuroRestorative house had such severe post-traumatic stress disorder that leaving the house was unthinkable. But when Gorman asked her to take a dog to the store as training, she didn’t think twice about it. With the focus on the dog, she hardly realized what she had accomplished until after she returned.
“Training them to be out in public is at the same time training for us,” Marine Sgt. Jon Gordon said. “Teaching the dog that a car backfire is OK, that people on the subway are OK.”
Gordon, 28, trained dogs through the program, including Birdie, the black lab that now lives with him. Before he connected with Birdie, Gordon got a few hours of sleep a night at best and didn’t want to interact with anyone.
“Being able to interact with people in general, I couldn’t do that before,” he said. “I pretty much isolated myself.”
Now Gordon lives in Michigan and hopes to extend canine therapy to other veterans through the Department of Veterans Affairs. He has taught several classes sharing his work and experience.
“It was a complete 180. I went from being just quiet, didn’t want to be with anybody, didn’t want to talk with anybody to, ‘I actually have purpose again,’” he said.