Editor's note: Dana Perino, author and co-anchor of "The Five" on Fox News Channel recently talked with David Sharpe, founder of Companions for Heroes. A portion of the proceeds from the sale of Perino's new book, "Let Me Tell You About Jasper" (Twelve, October 25, 2016) will be donated to Companions for Heroes.
Dana Perino: Why did you develop Companions for Heroes?
David Sharpe: I wanted to help those brothers and sisters who have served our country, both overseas and here in America, who are suffering with mental illness, (particularly those on the verge of committing suicide) while at the same time save a shelter dog or cat that does not have a choice in their fate.
Like me, I was a wreck -- I had a loaded .45 pistol in my mouth, broken, at the bottom of the hole I dug for myself, and a drunk. However, by my simply adopting my rescued pit bull (my savior), Cheyenne, through God, who gave me this angel, my life was saved and became a 180 degree turn to helping myself that also led to trying to help others like me or worse.
DP: Who do you want to reach with more information about C4H?
DS: My prayer and my goal is to reach that one man or woman out there. Alone, no one they can reach out to for help, depressed, living in fear of what the future holds after serving our country or while currently serving, and showing this hero who does not do it for the money, nor the fame; that through a loyal companion [shelter dog or cat], they too, can be saved and be significant in this life.
DP: What are a couple of examples of success from your pairings?
DS: Female U.S. Coast Guard Veteran, Samantha Cochran says:
"I was assigned to Search & Rescue and we were right under the Golden Gate Bridge when someone would jump off the bridge (attempting suicide) and it was our job to recover the bodies. If someone was still alive, we would perform CPR until the paramedics arrived. Annual suicide attempts averaged 400 a year, and I remember picking bodies up from the water once to three times a week...sometimes more. It got to be a little too much for me. I started having frequent panic attacks and trouble dealing with crowds. When I got Trooper [her dog] off the side of the road in Northern California and no one claimed him, we decided to keep him. It was a difficult time in my life but Trooper was there for me and he's been my best friend ever since.
Companions For Heroes provided me the training I needed to get my dog certified so he would be socially acceptable and could go into buildings. There's no way I could have afforded $25,000 to get Trooper trained and I was completely dumbfounded when I talked to Companions For Heroes and I could get free training for my dog. It's been great! I have a renewed sense of confidence and comfort now that Trooper can accompany me to more places. Since having my dog trained by Companions For Heroes, it's really helped me to get off the anti-anxiety meds. I'm starting to learn how to work through my anxiety and not have to rely on meds to do all of the work. I really feel that Companions For Heroes is helping me heal and doing so with my best friend - my dog."
Retired Staff Sergeant Kerry Clewell entered active duty in the U.S. Army as a Cavalry Scout in 2005. After a tour of duty in Iraq from 2006-2007 with the 25th Infantry Division, Kerry was accepted into the prestigious Explosive Ordnance Disposal school, where he was diagnosed with PTSD as a result of experiences from his deployment.
He was subsequently removed from the school and reassigned to the 10th Mountain Division, where he was deployed for a second tour of duty, this time to Afghanistan.
On that deployment, in April 2009, Kerry was struck by an improvised explosive device, which left him with Post Concussion Disorder and additional PTSD symptoms.
Kerry was retired from the Army in 2011 and returned to school to pursue a degree in Athletic Training.
Kerry believed that a companion dog would be a great fit for he and his family to alleviate his anxiety and the stress he often feels at night. And so when he contacted a German Shepard rescue agency, they referred him to Companions For Heroes.
“The process was incredibly smooth and went much faster than I thought it would,” Kerry said, of the steps he took to adopt his German Shepard, Riley. He refers to her as “Rye,” after his favorite post-work beverage.
Since Kerry is an athletic trainer, he has the freedom to take Rye with him to many of the places he goes for work, including when he coaches high school baseball games. She is an important part of his team in the dugout.
Often, integrating a new dog into a family can prove difficult, especially when one suffers from anxiety. Companions for Heroes and Red Stick German Shepard Rescue in Baton Rogue were integral in both assisting in Kerry’s adoption of Riley as well as with her training.
Kerry said, “Rye can be a bit anxious and protective when she meets new individuals”; this trait actually puts him at ease.
The love and trust Kerry has for Riley is very apparent, and thanks to Companions for Heroes another rescue pet has been saved, and the life of a veteran has been positively affected.
DP: How could this program be scaled to help even more heroes and rescue animals?
DS: The organization does not only focus on Service Animals which take more time to train for public access. Companions For Heroes also focuses on Companion Dogs and Cats, and Emotional Support Animals -- takes less time and most of the heroes reaching out for the organization’s help prefers the latter of the three categories.
Most of these heroes are struggling with anxiety and fear of being in public. The Companion Dog or Cat (basic obedience; e.g., abides by the commands of ‘sit’, ‘stay’, and does not defecate or urinate inside public places) resolves the hero’s anxiety and fear within days.
It’s more efficient and a much streamlined process to aiding the hero compared to the Service Dog Training Program which could take 6-8 months.
DP: If there's anyone reading this who thinks they might know someone who needs your help or who wants to help support and volunteer for C4H, what should they do?
DS: Have them call 1-866-701-6566 or visit www.companionsforheroes.org -- we will get back to the hero within 1 - 2 days.
Dana Perino currently serves as co-host of FOX News Channel's "The Five" (weekdays 9-10PM/ET). She previously served as Press Secretary for President George W. Bush. She is the author of the new book "Let Me Tell You about Jasper : How My Best Friend Became America's Dog" (October 25, 2016). Ms. Perino joined the network in 2009 as a contributor. Click here for more information on Dana Perino. Follow her on Twitter@DanaPerino.