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Vendor Expo honors military personnel, K-9

Sometimes there is no greater therapy for a soldier suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder than man’s best friend.

At the same time, for many dogs who serve with the military, those experiences can also lead them to suffer from PTSD as well.

Tina Wiepert of Hamburg started out with the intention of making a donation for a monument honoring militaty K-9 which is being erected at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas this fall.

She realized that she wanted to do more and it has led to a Vendor Expo which will be held at VFW Post 1419, 2985 Lakeview Road, Hamburg, from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Saturday, May 18.

“I saw the memorial they’re doing for the dogs,” Wiepert said.

She realized she could give a cash donation, but wanted to do more.

It started with the idea of holding an online auction. From there she wanted to find a place to hold a fundraiser.

It led her to a suggestion to talk to Joe Ruszala, a Vietnam Veteran who is retired due to disability, and co-founder, along with Kyle Hennessy-Snow, of “Courage to Heal,” a program aimed at allowing dogs and art to serve with the transition process for those suffering with PTSD back to dealing with civilian life.

In the logo for Courage to Heal, the “A” in the word heal is in red lettering over over the black lettering under the second “E,” giving the logo a double-meaning. The “A” is in reference to art.

With assistance from Ruszala, instead of a small benefit filled with a smaller amount of people, it will be held at VFW Post 1419, in a room that holds up to 300 people.

“It filled itself,” Wiepert said.

“It’s a pleasant problem to have,” Ruszala added.

Wiepert noted that one of the ironies is that it ended up being held on Armed Forces Day.

The event will include artisans, crafters and vendors whom people can come shop from. There will also be a silent auction in which event goers can bid on items and The Charlie O’Neill Unplugged Club will perform.

Jude Lane will be catering.

Those who attend will also have the chance to meet Jive, a Golden Retriever who is the service dog from “Courage to Heal.”

One of the main objectives of the fundraiser is to educate.

“I think people want to help but don’t know how,” Wiepert said.

Snow is a social worker who was working on a Bachelor’s program when she worked on a program called “Paws and Patriots” with the SPCA. The idea being that veterans could get help through a dog.

She was often asked, “where can I get a service dog?” Snow worked with a shelter in Georgia for about 10 years, calling Jennifer Arnold, the woman she has worked with in Georgia, a mentor.

“It’s (a) grassroots (campaign),” Snow said.

Ruszala believes this program is significant for soldiers who suffer with PTSD to try and get back to as normal a life as they can.

“It addresses transition and adjustment directly,” Ruszala said. “We think we can focus work in a specialized area.”

Ruszala is concerned about a number of things. He said it is hard for many people to welcome soldiers home because unless you are in the military, it is hard to understand what soldiers are going through. He said this often creates a disconnect between soldiers and civilians.

He is also concerned about the number of military suicides, calling the numbers a “national disgrace and off the charts.”

According to a recent report in the Los Angeles Times, there were 349 military suicides in 2012.

A mission of “Courage to Heal” is to eliminate military suicides.

Through partnerships and collaborations, Ruszala believes the program will help soldiers through the transition and adjustment phase.

“The consequences affect us all,” Ruszala said, noting that the purpose is to remission the soldier.

He said he talked to a Marine who was deployed on seven missions who told him that the mission of getting home to his dog is what saved his life.

“The intent and vision for us is to open a center,” Snow said.

In that center, the soldier will train with a service dog which will help with socialization.

She said as an example, she would envision six soldiers working with six puppies. They would eventually then go into somewhere such as a grocery store with their puppies, with idea of helping with the transition and adjustment.

This is not just about getting help with the assistance of a K-9 companion. Ruszala, who is also a photographer, said art and art activities is also a great healing tool.

According to Ruszala, they find that many soldiers have an “incredibly intense, artistic soft side to them,” and that getting in touch with that side of themselves is therapeutic to many returning soldiers.

The art helps them get out a lot of those emotions, while the dogs prove to be “the hook.”

They also hope to have an art gallery open to the public.

Last week, the program, which started with one puppy, started assisting a veteran.

“One of the vets is engaging in the program,” Ruszala said.

“I actually chose him because I have full trust in him to socialize the puppy,” Snow said.

Through this program, the goal is to help a soldier get back a sense of purpose, Snow said.

Ruszala said Courage to Heal will be partnering with the Buffalo Veterans Center.

“If veterans have any need for veteran services, the vet center will be there to answer any questions,” he said.

According to Ruszala, there are about 240,000 veterans in Western New York, and about 43,000 patients were served by the Buffalo VA Hospital last year.

“They’re all educated kids,” he said.

You can find Courage to Heal on Facebook by searching Courage to Heal TM.

Ruszala said there are different ways soldiers heal.

“For me, my healing comes from giving back,” Ruszala said.

He added that soldiers are the perfect people to trust with animals because they are taught discipline, honor and respect for chain of command.

“We’ve got a good message,” Ruszala said of the program. “The people are real.”


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