WNY group is healing war vets with rescue pets

Posted at 11:15 PM, Apr 21, 2017
and last updated 2017-04-21 23:42:08-04

For many combat veterans, returning home after serving in the military can be a difficult thing to do.

"A few ups and downs over the years," explained U.S. Army Veteran Michael Shanley. He served from 2000-2004 in Korea, Fort Hood, Texas and Iraq. "I was kind of lost for a little while there."

Shanley says he was a "knucklehead" for eight years before finding Dog Tags New York.

"This program has actually given me a purpose and a sense of service and giving back," he said.

That was the vision when Joe Ruszala and Susan Alexander founded the organization in September of 2013. They saw young veterans returning from combat with wounds that weren't visible and knew how they could help.

According to research from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, around 20 veterans commit suicide every day. Ruszala is a Vietnam Veteran, so he understands how difficult it is to transition to life outside the war.

"It's life or death," he said. "Then you come home and it stops and it stops quickly. They feel like they're all alone."

Ruszala says that can leave veterans feeling like they don't have a purpose and that is what can lead to tragedy.

"If you don't have a reason to get up in the morning, you won't," Ruszala said. "What we've found is through the dogs, they have a reason to get up in the morning."

The group helps veterans adopt shelter dogs and provides free dog-training classes. Every Sunday, the veterans work with professional dog trainer Laurie Reagan. The weekly meet-ups help form a bond between the dogs and the veterans.

That bond is particularly close between Vietnam Veteran Donald Spahr and his dog, Chico. Spahr says he and Chico rely on each other to get through each day.

"It's really tough because most people don't understand post-traumatic stress," he explained. "But your dog does."

The bond between man and dog helps these veterans return to civilian life, but so does the bond between man and man. The group shares an understanding of each other's experiences and they support each other through difficult times.

"We all understand the journey because we've all been there," Ruszala said. "About struggling to fit in. A lot of times we'll struggle with some of the bad choices we've made."

"These guys understand certain things most people don't," Shanley explained. "And you don't have to explain those things."

Many of the veterans are training their dogs to become therapy dogs, which would allow them to volunteer at the VA Medical Center.

You can learn more about Dog Tags New York at this website or on their Facebook page here.