"This dog saved my life. I couldn't ask for a better companion. He does anything I ask," Brenton Heller told Greencastle-Antrim Middle School students Wednesday during a Veteran's Day program on the America's VetsDogs training program at two Maryland prisons near Hagerstown.
Those were about the only words the Army veteran got out before becoming emotional and leaving the podium a round of applause from the students.
This was Heller's third visit for a G-AMS Veterans Day program. He and his dog Auburn accompanied officer Chad Besore, VetDogs liaison; Lt. Pamela Neary, housing unit manager; Layla, a 16-week-old puppy; and Eddie, who is nearing the end of his training.
Their presentation was one of a number of Veterans Day programs and activities for G-A students.
'My best friend'
"He's my best friend, he saved my life," Heller said before the program. Heller served three tours in a Iraq, "was blown up by IEDs" and suffers from severe post-traumatic stress disorder.
Auburn has been in his life for four and a half years. The dog wakes him from nightmares, keeps him calm in crowds, consoles him, turns lights on, retrieves medication and "the list goes on and on," Heller said.
It's hard for vets to admit they need help and they don't always get the support they deserve, Neary told the students.
"This gives them something to take care of that also takes care of them," she continued. "The veterans have an opportunity to have a normal life with a normal pet that has special abilities."
Veterans get the dogs free of charge, Basore said, added that each is worth $40,000 to $50,000.
In training with inmates
Inmates at Maryland Correctional Institution — Hagerstown and Maryland Correctional Training Center train the America's VetDogs service dogs, working with them 24/7 five days a week. On weekends, the dogs go with volunteer puppy raisers in the community for training unavailable in the prison setting, such as behaving in a restaurant, interacting with cats and getting used to cars, trains and buses.
During about 15 months in the correctional facilities, the dogs learn over 100 tasks, from the basic sit, stay and fetch to "fridge," which involves opening the refrigerator, retrieving something like medicine, closing the refrigerator and taking the item to the veteran, Basore told the students.
"It's pretty crazy some of the stuff they can do," Basore said. "These dogs make a huge difference."
MCIH was the first Maryland prison to host the training program in 2012. It is now conducted at five locations and of the 59 dogs that have graduated in Maryland, half are from MCIH or MCTC.
"This is the best restorative justice program in any prison," Mark Vernarelli, a representative of the Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services, said. "It allows the inmates to repay society in a meaningful way."
The inmates selected to participate are "the best of the best" and criteria includes good behavior and mental health and medical screenings.
Some learn skills they can use on the outside, while others, like those serving life sentences, can give back to the community from behind bars, Basore explained.
"It changes everything for them," Basore said. He explained inmates want updates after the dogs leave the prison to receive final training at the America's VetDogs facility in New York before being assigned to a veteran.
"It's a party when they get paired (with a veteran)," he said.
"Having dogs around reduces the stress level," Neary added.