Veterans Moving Forward: Service dogs changing veterans' lives

Elizabeth Howe
April 01, 2019 - 1:37 pm

Photo courtesy of Veterans Moving Forward

For the last nine years, Veterans Moving Forward has trained service dogs to do everything from retrievals to preemptive migraine detection to night terror prevention — and they've seen the effects that service dogs can have on the life of a veteran. 

"We have veterans that come in on multiple medications — anywhere from 12 to 24 different medications," explained JP Stevens, Marine Corps veteran and executive director of Veterans Moving Forward. "We've had people go from 12 to 2 medications. What type of medication gets people off of medications? A dog. Dogs do wonderful things."

In the year since Stevens joined the VMF team, the operation has cut costs by 25 percent — this means more dogs for more veterans. 

"We've been in business for eight years and we've done pretty well — but my job is to turn the corner, and my personal goal is to help veterans out by getting out as many dogs as possible. We're in this stage of starting to bring in a lot more money, and more money means more dogs go out the door," Stevens said. 

That money comes from dedicated sponsors who come back to VMF over and over again after seeing the impact service dogs can have on the lives of veterans. 

"When we graduate a service dog in training to a service dog we have a Bone Voyage," Stevens explained. "We bring in everybody that had anything to do with that dog — volunteers, veterinarians, puppy raisers, puppy sitters, staff, sponsors. And when they come in and see that transfer of the dog and see the veteran, it's very moving. Our sponsors really support us and stay with us."

Even with cost-cutting and dedicated sponsors, VMF is always looking for ways to help more veterans. Recently, they've started pilot programs where veterans train their own service dogs.

"Veterans raising their own dogs — they're very dedicated. Not that puppy raisers aren't, but if you're training your own dog you're a little more committed," Stevens said. 

The organization has also started to look at training rescue dogs rather than purebred dogs to work as service dogs. 

"We're developing different pilot programs. It allows us to test concepts and see how it goes," Stevens said. "I want there to be 50, 100, 500 dogs here. I want to get out of this facility and into a gigantic one somewhere. Our goals are to figure out how to get as many dogs out to as many veterans as possible."

One of those veterans, De'Angelo Wynn, has gone from taking 11 medications for anxiety and bipolar to just two medications in the nine months since he brought home Jug. 

Photo courtesy of De'Angelo Wynn

Wynn enlisted in the Navy in 2008 and served as a religious program specialist, working as a bodyguard for chaplains in combat zones and providing comfort to service members in their final moments. He deployed to Afghanistan multiple times until one of those deployments, coupled with PTSD, led to his medical retirement. 

"I never saw being medically retired in my proverbial book of life at all," Wynn said. "I was 26 years old, an E6 in the United States Navy, meritoriously promoted numerous times, sailor of the year consecutively. I never saw being medically retired. This was my life."

Working with a VA counselor, Wynn went back to school. It was at Shenandoah University that he first encountered Veterans Moving Forward during a campus visit. 

"I had no idea that service dogs could be used for anxiety disorders or bipolar disorder," Wynn said. "And that was actually how I found out about Veterans Moving Forward and the capabilities of a service dog for diagnoses like mine."

For Wynn, Jug has been a game changer. 

"I'm down from those eleven meds to only two. I'm sleeping through the night. Just the companionship itself has been great. It's been an absolute game changer. I feel the same energy and tenacity to tackle a task that I did when I was in the military which was something I thought would be absent once I medically retired," Wynn said. "There are no words to describe the value that Jug and VMF have created in my life."

Veterans Moving Forward is always looking for sponsors and volunteers for administrative operations and — of course — puppy raising.   VMF is located just outside Washington, D.C., but they provide service dogs and training nationwide.

Visit the VMF website to learn more.

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