(WASHINGTON) — A group of disabled Iraq and Afghanistan military veterans has taken on an important mission — training service dogs to aid other wounded vets on their road to recovery and beyond as part of a program just begun by the Pentagon.
Dogs like four-month-old puppy Cadence are part of a three-year training course that will eventually match them up to help wounded troops coming home who’ve suffered debilitating injuries such as loss of limbs.
Training man’s best friends to assist those with physical disabilities has been done in the past — but what’s different about this program is that injured military vets do the training. And that training has had a positive impact on the trainers themselves — giving them their own kind of canine therapy, as well as giving the dogs more specified training.
Sgt. Brian Bradley, who is training six dogs, lost his right arm in Afghanistan in 2010. He credits the program with helping him readjust to everyday life. And in return, he uses his prosthetic limb to better train the dogs to better understand the disabled soliders they’ll be assigned once their training is finished.
“When I first got to the program last year, some of the puppies — they were like, ‘What is that?’ They see the hook moving around and stuff,” Bradley said. “I got other prosthetics, but they see the hook and we introduce that to them because they know they are going to be seeing it later. Also, we introduced the wheelchairs to them too and the power chairs.”
Bradley believes that with disabled vets doing the training, the dogs will better serve wounded soldiers when they are done.
“When a service member gets a service dog from another company, most of those people are able bodied, have no issues, so they aren’t really working around anybody who is disabled,” Bradley said. “So we train them completely how every disabled service member would be.”
The dogs in the program are trained to help out with everyday tasks like picking up wallets, money and credit cards to turning on lights and pushing automatic door buttons.
“I can open the door for myself — but if I have a lot of stuff, he can push the buttons for me,” Bradley said. “He can flip lights as well. I’ll say ‘light’ and he’ll jump up on the wall and he’ll flip it. Sometimes he uses his paw, sometimes he uses his nose.”
But they are also trained to help heal another kind of injury that plagues so many soldiers when they return home from war — post-traumatic stress disorder.
“Mine kicks in every time I put on a new prosthetic that looks identical to my other arm,” Bradley said. “It’s like an instant memory of me actually losing my arm that day. So PTSD is there.”
Specialist Cory Doane, who lost a leg in Afghanistan in 2011 when his vehicle was hit by an IED, says the program helps him even more than it helps the dogs he’s training.
“It helped me a lot more than it’s helped the dog for sure,” Doane said. “It’s nice just to get out and about again. Because, you know, after I was wounded I was kind of stationary for a bit. So it’s nice to get out and actually do something productive, instead of just healing. It’s nice to contribute back.”
Those contributions — from the trainers and the dogs — are being recognized by the military community.
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta praised the program and those who make it happen.
“To be able to have someone who can be close to you and be a part of you as you go through some very tough times, as you rehabilitate, as you come back and try to come back into society and have the company of a dog — that is really a true friend because they don’t question what you are doing, they’re just your friend through thick and thin,” Panetta told ABC News’ Jake Tapper. “Having that kind of relationship I think is just great for the veterans who serve this country.”
Panetta has his own canine friend, a golden retriever named Bravo, who has shown him the kind of difference a furry friend can make.
“We could not do our job of protecting this country without people like you who are willing to put their lives on the line,” Panetta said to the wounded warrior trainers. “And I really appreciate your service and your sacrifice. I appreciate the effort to, you know, be able to have a dog help someone be able to lead a fuller life. In many ways that’s what Bravo does for me in some very tough jobs that I’ve been in — having the company of Bravo around and having him provide emotional support.
“Thanks for everything you’re doing to help our veterans. We owe them an awful lot,” he said. “I guess one of the ways we can repay it is to have them have the company of a dog.”
Copyright 2012 ABC News Radio