Service dogs help vets to new heights

2012-08-21T00:00:00Z Service dogs help vets to new heightsRob Crow (Carbondale) Southern Illinoisan
August 21, 2012 12:00 am  • 

CARBONDALE, Ill. | Howard Mattice was nervous.

A Marine from Tucson, Ariz., Mattice was deployed three times to Iraq. But as Mattice and some soldiers returning to civilian life have found, post-traumatic stress disorder, injuries and other stressors can make the next stage of their lives difficult and nerve-wracking.

So, standing on the tarmac Aug. 7 at Southern Illinois Airport, Mattice faced his fear with support.

"Just getting on the plane, to me, is very traumatic, just with all the people," Mattice said.

With the help of his new four-legged friend, Mattice safely got on a plane and up in the air. And by the time the twin Cessna touched back down at Southern Illinois Airport, Mattice stepped out of the plane, all smiles and hugs.

"It was a big moment," Mattice said.

And it's a moment Mattice credited to Maverick, his new service dog, and a Southern Illinois organization.

This Able Veteran, based out of Carbondale, pairs veterans dealing with injuries in their civilian lives with service dogs. It also offers weeks of on-site training with the veterans and their dogs, offering valuable time for each to become comfortable with the other, and to help ease the veterans' lives when they graduate the class.

It was a valuable day in the current class, founder Behesha Doan said.

"They need to learn how to do all the normal things, things we tend to take for granted, with their dogs," Doan said. "Going on a trip with their families is one of them."

This class has six veterans, some local, some from far away.

Kevin MacDonald, of Vienna, served in the Army, and was injured in a peacekeeping mission in Croatia shortly before the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Although unable to get on the plane because of a disorder that affects his balance, MacDonald said his service dog has made a major impact.

MacDonald was unsure of how the program would work for him, as he already had dogs at home. But within days of meeting his new golden retriever, Buck, the Army veteran knew this relationship would be different.

"I never thought there would be a difference," he said. "But having a trained dog, he actually could tell the other day when I was getting a migraine, so I was pretty impressed.

"For me, (this will give) me a little more confidence going out in the community."

It can also give confidence to those who would normally be uncomfortable stepping onto a plane or into a busy airport.

As for the results from flights Aug. 7, Mattice said Maverick was perfect, acting better than his veteran — and wearing Mattice's sunglasses.

As for the results for the veterans, the bear hug Mattice gave Doan after the flight spoke volumes.

"They did fantastic," Doan said.

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