It is often said that dog is man’s best friend, and for many local veterans—both male and female alike—there are no truer words. In fact, for some, like Army veteran Connor Green, his dog Bradley is much more than just a friend.
“It is difficult to put into words how much Bradley has changed my life. We were paired in October of 2016—it is strange to reflect back on how far we have come as a team,” said Green. “I struggle to remember what it was like prior to being paired with Bradley.”
Green and Bradley found each other through the appropriately named Life Changing Service Dogs for Veterans (LCSDFV), a local nonprofit that partners with Guardian Angels Medical Service Dogs, Inc. (GAMSD), a nonprofit based in Florida, to assist local veterans of U.S. military service.
According to Don Accamando, vice-chair of LCSDFV, their mission is to provide service dogs to veterans who suffer from visible and invisible disabilities, including traumatic brain injuries or post-traumatic stress disorders. Don’s brother, veteran Tony Accamando, and veteran George D’Angelo founded the organization in the hopes of assisting fellow veterans.
“It all started when we watched the screening of a documentary Project 22,” Don Accamando explained.
The film was the work of two veterans who traveled the country talking with veterans who were suffering from mental health issues stemming from their service. The number 22 was selected as it is the estimated number of veterans who take their own lives each day in the United States, according to the Veterans’ Administration.
“Tony is a Vietnam Vet who has spent his whole life doing things to serve other veterans,” Accamando said of his brother. After Tony met a young vet who was paired with a service dog through Semper Fi Odyssey, he found a mission.
“Tony said, ‘That’s it. That’s what we’re going to do,’” said Accamando, who is a veteran himself.
Tony researched various organizations that raised service dogs and found Carol Borden, executive director of GAMSD. On June 5, 2015, a small team of volunteers launched LCSDFV with the goal of raising enough funds in 22 months to provide 22 veterans with service dogs at $22,000 each.
That initial goal was not only accomplished, but fundraising far exceeded their hopes. Since then, LCSDFV has paired over 60 veterans and dogs. “It was an easy sell. People love dogs and of course, want to help veterans,” Accamando said.
Green said that when he was finding the transition from soldier to civilian difficult, Bradley made all of the difference. “Having unexpected seizures only compounded the challenges and obstacles I was facing. Bradley has truly been the greatest impact on my life since separating from the Army,” he said.
“He is always with me, 24/7, and has been since we were paired,” he continued. “To put it simply, Bradley is an extension of myself. I generally refer to the pair of us as ‘we’ because we truly are a team.”
Based on their success, LCSDFV is now raising funds to open a Pittsburgh campus of Guardian Angels Medical Service Dogs, which will be located in northern Washington County. “LSCDFV has already purchased 100 acres and is working toward the design and acquiring funds,” said Accamando, noting that a Pittsburgh-based campus will enable more dogs to be trained and more local veterans to be served.
LCSDFV is an all-volunteer organization that meets monthly and raises money through donations, fundraisers, other events and grants. Accamando said they are always seeking interested volunteers. “We are also always looking at other organizations and events where we can come and talk about what we do and how they can help,” he said.
For veterans who think they may benefit from a dog, Green encourages them to reflect on their lives and needs. “Being paired with a service dog is obviously a full-time commitment that comes with responsibility,” he said. “If you truly need the help and you love the dog as much as you love yourself, don’t hesitate to apply for a service dog. I would not be where I am today if it wasn’t for Life Changing Service Dogs for Veterans, as well as Guardian Angels Medical Service Dogs.”
Veterans who would benefit from a dog, or those wishing to volunteer or donate are encouraged to reach out through the website https://www.padogsforvets.org.
Animal Friends of Pittsburgh has a long history with veterans, according to Ann Ensminger, senior director of Impact & Programs. “We were founded in 1943 at the height of World War II when military personnel who were headed overseas had nowhere to place their pets,” she explained.
A small group of women rented a room in the William Penn Hotel where they created a matchmaking system matching military personnel’s pets that needed to be rehomed with people who were looking to adopt a pet.
Now, nearly 80 years later, Animal Friends is still rescuing animals and on Veterans Day will celebrate the first anniversary of the newly created Animal Friends for Veterans program, an arm of the organization that focuses solely on those who have served in the Armed Services. “We are meeting veterans and animals where they are. If a pet is already in a home with a veteran in need, we can help provide free pet food. If they need wellness services, we can help with discounted wellness care,” said Ensminger.
There are a wealth of services that Animal Friends offers to veterans, including help with food and veterinary costs or matchmaking for veterans who want a pet. “What I really like about our program is that it is comprehensive and customizable,” Ensminger said.
Animal Friends works with each veteran’s needs and abilities not only when matching a pet, but when working with a trainer as well. They assist veterans through the entire process to empower them to train their own pets and to build a strong bond with the help of a certified trainer.
Before any pet is adopted, Animal Friends provides physical exams, spay or neuter surgeries, up-to-date, age-appropriate vaccinations, deworming, heartworm and Lyme tests for dogs, FIV, FeLV and heartworm tests for cats, microchips, flea/tick preventative, and heartworm preventative for dogs, and more if needed.
Animal Friends can provide many of the services at no or low cost for veterans and active military thanks to the Major Ben Follansbee Memorial Fund. Maj. Follansbee was a highly decorated Green Beret who took his own life in 2012, and his parents, Dr. and Mrs. William Follansbee, established the fund to support veterans’ programming at Animal Friends with the mission of helping veterans and saving homeless shelter animals.
Veterans seeking pets or services from Animal Friends or those wishing to make donations can visit www.thinkingoutsidethecage.org/other-ways-to-give/veterans-services.