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Topics: Veterans Affairs

James Jay Carafano: A dog's life for veterans

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Photo - Army Sgt. Jason Cartwright leans over to reward Isaac, a Labrador retriever, during training to reinforce Isaac's odor detection skills in preparation for the National Odor Recognition Test (NORT) on Wednesday, March 28, 2012, at Kansas City International Airport in Kansas City, Mo. The K9s also received specialized training to recognize peroxide-based explosives, commonly used in homemade explosives. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco Firearms and Explosives Kansas City Field Division conducted the three-day event, which concludes Thursday.  (AP Photo/The Kansas City Star, Jill Toyoshiba)
Army Sgt. Jason Cartwright leans over to reward Isaac, a Labrador retriever, during training to reinforce Isaac's odor detection skills in preparation for the National Odor Recognition Test (NORT) on Wednesday, March 28, 2012, at Kansas City International Airport in Kansas City, Mo. The K9s also received specialized training to recognize peroxide-based explosives, commonly used in homemade explosives. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco Firearms and Explosives Kansas City Field Division conducted the three-day event, which concludes Thursday. (AP Photo/The Kansas City Star, Jill Toyoshiba)
Opinion,James Jay Carafano,Columnists,Veterans Affairs,Veterans

"I am alive today because of this program."

So wrote one veteran to the good people of K9s For Warriors, a program started by Shari Duval.

Here's how Shari describes her life. "Bob, my husband, and I live in Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida. ... Bob enjoyed a very successful career as a professional golfer, and is now retired from the PGA Champions tour. We have been blessed with [four] wonderful children and eight beautiful grandchildren."

But even when you're living the American dream, harsh realities -- like war -- can interrupt. One of Shari's children, a veteran K9 police officer, served two tours in Iraq as a bomb-dog handler. He returned home with post-traumatic stress disorder.

Having lived the dream, Shari and a group of likeminded friends resolved to give back to those who help secure the dream for all of us -- the nation's veterans and their families. The question was: How?

Shari's band of volunteers spent two years researching ways to assist veterans suffering PTSD. Perhaps not surprisingly, given her son's experience, they decided to start a nonprofit dedicated to providing them with canine assistance.

And so, K9s For Warriors was born. The group trains dogs rescued from shelters as service-dog companions for veterans coping with PTSD. As Shari notes on their website, K9sforwarriors.org, "When a warrior arrives at our academy, they arrive on two legs; they leave on six with their new canine service partner."

Memorial Day is first and foremost a time to remember those that gave their all in the service of their nation. But one of the best ways to honor their memory is to serve the living who have shared in their service and sacrifice -- 22 million veterans and their families, as well as the families of the fallen.

As former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen has frequently observed, when it comes to serving veterans, America is a "sea of goodwill."

But navigating that sea can be difficult for many veterans who find themselves in a variety of challenging circumstances and have very different needs.

It can be difficult for those who want to help as well. Many civilians want to give back to those who gave, but have no idea of how to get started, who to help or how to find them.

Shari Duval and other great Americans have learned how to answer those questions. Start in your own backyard. Start in your own community.

Community-based, volunteer programs are the bedrock of caring service for our veterans and their families. And there is, indeed, a sea of local programs rooted in stories similar to that of K9s For Warriors.

Warriors and Quiet Waters, for example, a program based in Bozeman, Mont. In 2001, Bozeman was a community with almost no veterans. But after 9/11, the good people of Bozeman decided they wanted to do something.

First, they figured out what special gift they had to offer. The answer was obvious: fly fishing. Then they figured how to help -- establishing a therapeutic fly-fishing program to help grievously injured members of the armed forces.

From Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla., to Bozeman, Mont., and countless other communities across this nation, private citizens are memorializing the day beautifully -- by making a difference in the lives of those who put their lives on the line for America.

Washington Examiner Columnist James Jay Carafano is vice president for defense and foreign policy studies at the Heritage Foundation.

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