NEWS | April 12, 2011

Wounded warriors receive new companions

By Machinist's Mate 3rd Class Brannon Deugan Joint Base Charleston Public Affairs Office

Through the combined efforts of the Naval Consolidated Brig Charleston and the Carolina Canines for Service organization, two wounded veterans were presented with their new canine companions during a ceremony at NAVCONBRIG, March 31.

Since its inception in 1996, Carolina Canines has successfully placed more than 41 service dogs, valued at more than $1.6 million, with disabled service members nationwide. Since partnering with the NAVCONBRIG aboard Joint Base Charleston-Weapons Station, the program has placed four dogs with wounded warriors while successfully employing prisoners to develop marketable skills.

"This program is essential for us to have," said NAVCONBRIG Charleston Commanding Officer Navy Cmdr. Ray Drake. "It not only ensures wounded warriors are provided for, but the program also allows the Brig to provide our prisoners with skill-sets they can use in the civilian sector. And, all the dogs are rescued from local animal shelters instead of being euthanized, so it's a win-win situation for all involved.

"The program enables us to help fulfill the needs of wounded warriors who need a service dog to make their quality of life better," Commander Drake explained.

The program at NAVCONBRIG was introduced in September, 2010, and began with seven local area rescued canines. Each dog was placed with a prisoner-trainer who worked with the animal for several hours a day. The training regimen takes anywhere from 1,800 to 2,000 hours to fully prepare a service dog to accommodate the specific needs of a wounded warrior.

"I felt honored, privileged and excited when I found out I was receiving a service dog," said retired Marine Sgt. Jason Blondin, the recipient of a four-year-old black Labrador Retriever named Eden. "I still don't believe that it is actually happening."

After being injured in Iraq in Nov. 2006, Sergeant Blondin suffered from severe head trauma which affected his balance and cognitive functions, making daily routine activities difficult for him to accomplish on his own.

"Sometimes I have problems with my knees or back," said Sergeant Blondin. "I dropped a few things yesterday that I would normally have trouble picking up, but before I could even give Eden the command, she picked it up for me which is a huge relief and great help."

Due to his Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, Sergeant Blondin said one of the main areas in which Eden is able to help him is by using her unique ability to clear spaces in crowded or noisy areas.

"I tend to become nauseated and start to feel sick in crowded, noisy places," Sergeant Blondin explained. "If it is too crowded, I can give her a couple of commands to clear out some space around me. I feel more comfortable when I can focus on her instead of what is going on around me."

The service dog's training is provided by prisoners and the dogs spend an additional five to seven days training with their new owner, fine-tuning the specific skill sets needed for that particular veteran's disabilities. Upon completion of the extra training and bonding time, the service dogs accompany their new owner home.

Marine Sgt. Arthur Hilliard, who was injured in a training accident, also received a service dog named Lazarus, during the hour-long ceremony.

"The two service dogs that departed today both had a strong bond, not only with their trainers, but with all of the prisoners and the staff around the facility," said Commander Drake. "There are probably some people sad to see them go since they are two of our longer term animals. But in the end we all know the dogs are going to a good cause and to a good home with a loving and grateful new owner."