TAMPA, Fla. — There's nothing like a bond with man's best friend. But two special dog breeds are working miracles with injured veterans who return home from deployment with PTSD or mobility challenges.
These service animals can make our American heroes feel less alone and give them the independence they deserve.
"Look out the window to help everybody and look in the mirror to help myself," explained Air Force veteran Ryan Bodge.
He spent 27 years in the Security Armed Forces, deploying eight times to Iraq and Afghanistan. During one of those tours, Bodge sustained a brain injury from a blast and didn't realize the extent of that damage.
But after suffering for years with migraines, dizziness, and trauma, he was finally ready to retire, and a service dog was highly recommended.
''You have to get over the fact that you're going to walk around with this beautiful animal that's going to say, 'I've got something going on, right?' But if it means you're getting to a better place in life, you know, who cares what people think?'' Bodge said emphatically.
Bodge was paired with Bradley, who helps him in several aspects of his life.
''He's primarily of assistance to me when it comes to the PTSD,'' Bodge said.
That emotional support is demonstrated in different ways.
''Bradley does deep pressure therapy. So if I'm lying on the ground or sitting on the ground, I just want a break. Bradley will come, and he'll lay on my lap, and he'll put pressure on my lap. It's kind of like a little bit of a comfort blanket,'' Bodge explained.
Bradley can also assist with mobility commands.
''I can ask Bradley to retrieve certain things like keys, cell phone, remote. With Bradley, he can also retrieve water. Go into a refrigerator, retrieve a water, bring it to you, go back and close the refrigerator,'' Bodge said.
Bodge received Bradley thanks to Valor Service Dogs.
"So to teach it like she did, you just take a treat, lure them under there, and then, we just want her to stay in that position until Kaileanna releases her from that position. So that you could go through a whole meal in a restaurant and they just stay under the table," explained the Founder and Executive Director Carol Lansford.
She started the nonprofit organization after her husband, Justin, suffered a devastating injury while serving in Afghanistan.
''He was injured in an IED blast. He was a gunner on top of a truck, and the IED blew under his truck and cut it in half. And he was pinned underneath the truck, and it severed his leg, broke his back, he lost his spleen, ruptured both lungs. I think he's had over 40 surgeries,'' Lansford explained.
Justin lost his leg in that blast, and while recovering at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, Lansford decided to become certified in training service animals. In 2015, she opened Valor Service Dogs.
''We have 15 dogs in training right now, and it takes about two years per dog. We get the dogs donated for the most part from other service dog organizations, other breeding programs. And when they have excess dogs, they donate them to our program,'' she said.
To be able to receive a service dog, you must meet certain qualifications.
''Our eligibility requirements are post 9/11 combat wounded for PTSD. If it's a mobility dog, it can be combat wounded or in a training simulation. They have to be retired from the military or in the process of retiring, so no longer deployable,'' Lansford explained.
Each labrador or golden retriever learns about 60 commands and is paired specifically with a veteran both in size and in need, whether for emotional support due to PTSD or mobility support due to an injury.
"It is such a rewarding opportunity," said Kaileanna Albright, who helps train the dogs for Valor and tries to incorporate the animals into every part of her life.
She demonstrated that one of the dogs she's training, Daisey, was able to get her leash and bring it to Albright. Daisey was also learning basic commands, using just her nose to press an elevator button or a handicap door opener in the future for a veteran in need.
Daisey also watches for signs of trauma or anxiety, like when a veteran might put his face in his hands. She learns to recognize that stress and interrupt it. That way, the handler has to focus on the dog, and it helps to distract the veteran at that moment or calm him or her down.
Despite all the ways Bradley physically helps Bodge, he said emotionally, it's been life-changing.
''Bradley has forced me to slow down. I mean, I'm seeing colors I haven't seen in a while. I've seen things I haven't seen in a while like 'Hey, how long has that bush been there?' People say ''It's been over 10 years.' So he's changed my life greatly, and he continues to change my life,'' Bodge said with a smile.
Bodge became such a believer in the miracle of service dogs Carol helped find him funding to get certified to become a trainer. Now, Bodge is helping Valor Service Dogs expand, becoming the Program Manager of the South Georgia Region, training six dogs in Valdosta.
Valor relies completely on donations, and if you'd like to learn more about their program, click here.