How dogs are saving veterans’ lives

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U.S. Marine veteran BJ Ganem was injured by a roadside bomb on Thanksgiving night 2004 outside of Mahmoudiya, Iraq. The blast disabled the Humvee he was driving, killing his gunner instantly. Ganem and three other Marines were injured, and while the rest of his team were able to return to duty, Ganem sustained injuries that left him with an amputated left leg, mild brain injury and shrapnel wounds. Worst of all for him, the attack left Ganem with the realization that he would no longer be a Marine Infantryman in the fight for freedom. 

He struggled with transitioning out of the military — a life that gave him purpose, a mission and community. His story is not unlike the struggles that so many veterans face. 

Today, Ganem attributes what happened next to a very unlikely savior: his dog, Dozer.

Struggling with depression, a painful divorce, bankruptcynand DUI charges, Ganem began to experience suicidal ideations. “I was beginning to plan how I was going to quit my life even though I had a great family and friends and plenty of things going for me, despite now identifying as a ‘disabled vet,’” he told We Are The Mighty. “I justified everything in my mind except for what would happen to Dozer if I was no longer here.”

Dozer gave Ganem the unconditional love that only an animal companion could give — but more than that, he gave Ganem purpose again. Ganem realized he needed to seek help.

“I began to realize that many other veterans were struggling as well and I began to volunteer a lot with Wounded Warrior Project and Semper Fi Fund,” Ganem explained, echoing a common thread in the veteran community: service after service provides healing, connection and purpose.

After five years working in the veteran non-profit space, Ganem realized he could take his activism further and help give veterans the kind of support he’d received from Dozer. He created Sierra Delta, a non-profit organization that empowers every veteran with access to approved dog training that provides purpose, innovation, and community through the love of dogs.

“I had an opportunity to create a new nonprofit focused on the positive effect dogs can have on veterans thanks to the support of Nantucket Island and especially the Bishop Family, who created Blue Buffalo Pet Food Company,” he recalled. 

Today, Sierra Delta revolutionizes the “service dogs for veterans” model. Every dog provides a service, and the reasons and purpose for obtaining a dog are individual and unique to every owner. The mission of Sierra Delta is to empower American military veterans by developing a powerful bond with their dog and their community.

A service dog is a professional trained dog that provides service to an individual with a disability like guidance for vision impairment, medical alerts, and more. Service dogs go through extensive training to receive federal qualifications and public access. 

Sierra Delta recognizes that dogs don’t necessarily need to be service dogs in order to provide service and support to veterans, so they have stepped in to help vets train their companions to improve their quality of life while building community with other dog lovers. 

“The current service dog curriculums are based on the guide dog model that was first introduced over 50 years ago to help blind people better navigate the world,” explained Ganem. “This model has since evolved into helping deaf, mobility challenged, and now mentally and emotionally challenged individuals. It is, however, extremely unsustainable as it requires all dogs who participate to be rated as “public access” and necessitates expensive and timely training for the dog to accompany their person with a medical disability anywhere.” 

This is a great thing for the small number of people that need this level of service but the vast majority of veterans do not need or want this level of service. 

Sierra Delta believes we can do better. Dozer and so many other dogs have in fact helped so many veterans — what is missing is more a diverse curriculum utilizing existing infrastructure like abundance of dog training facilities and the abundance of dogs in need of a forever home. 

Sierra Delta allows any military veteran to join their digital platform which gives them instant access to education about dog care, training, and communication. Veterans can also receive guidance about whether a medical assistance service dog is what they need and, if so, help them decide where to apply for that highly specialized dog.

By providing a community that allows all veterans (whether they are “disabled” or not) and their dogs (whether they are a medical assistance service dog or a Life Buddy service dog or just a well-trained pet) celebrate their accomplishments and share how they are getting better without worry of losing benefits or status, this community could lead to better outcomes for a large portion of our veteran community and for the dog community as well.”

To join the Sierra Delta community or learn more about how dogs can improve your life, check out their website.