Service dog warns veteran of coming seizures

Fundraiser 5K at Quiet Waters to help provide service dogs for other veterans

March 25, 2011|By Jonathan Pitts, The Baltimore Sun

He had been at the Iraqi front for months — and before that, in the war zones of Kuwait, Somalia and Bosnia — so for Sgt. 1st Class Mark Gwathmey, the day-to-day presence of shelling and explosions seemed like no big deal.

Sure, there were headaches from an old head injury, and a few hand tremors, and some pain from a past broken foot.

"[It] was nothing I wasn't ready to deal with," Gwathmey says. "I'm a Marine."

Then he got home.

Back in Maryland in 2006, Gwathmey saw his shakes worsening. Then came the nightmares and anxiety attacks. Worse, grand mal seizures began to strike Gwathmey without warning, knocking him unconscious several times a day.

"He was getting worse, not better," says CeCe Gwathmey, his wife and chief caregiver.

As it turned out, only man's best friend could help.

In late 2007, a nonprofit group the Gwathneys had never heard of — America's VetDogs of Smithtown, N.Y. — served up just the right medicine: a talented English retriever-golden Lab mix named Larry who can sense when a seizure is coming and bark out a warning, Lassie-style.

"I thought the whole idea was crazy at first, but he has changed our lives," says Gwathmey, 40, of Upper Marlboro.

One of Gwathmey's friends wants to help another veteran. Next Sunday, Ari Schiff, a midshipman at the Naval Academy, will chair the first America's VetDogs 5K Run/Walk in Quiet Waters Park in hopes of raising $50,000 for the organization.

The amount would provide a service dog for one more veteran who needs help with balance, eyesight or other issues stemming from combat.

Schiff, who says the Naval Academy has no affiliation with the event, isn't sure he'll reach his goal, but 100 runners and walkers had signed up by mid-March.

One was Gwathmey, who will try to finish the course despite leg pains derived from an old injury.

"If [my ankle] starts to hurt too much, you'll see how I lean on Larry," he says.

Pedigree

Gwathmey (the name is Welsh) comes from a long line of servicemen.

His grandfather, John Henry Gwathmey, was an Army infantryman during World War II. His father, Hewlet Gwathmey, fought with the Air Force in Vietnam and was one of the 52 Americans taken hostage by Iran mullahs in 1977.

The organization helping him has a similar pedigree.

It was 1946 when a handful of patriotic civic leaders in New York founded the Guide Dog Foundation for the Blind, a school to train service dogs for the sight-impaired, but especially for vets returning from Europe or the South Pacific.

"Helping [veterans] was one of the strong foundations on which the organization was built," says Jeff Bressler, executive vice president of America's VetDogs, which came into being as an arm of the foundation five years ago.

The Guide Dog Foundation is still breeding and raising hundreds of dogs for the sight-impaired, providing them to their new owners — military or civilian — free of charge.

But physical therapists working with veterans wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan knew that dogs could help with more than sight issues.

They were already offering physical and emotional balance to veterans dealing with amputations, comfort to those in the throes of post-traumatic stress disorder, and even calm to soldiers stationed in war zones.

"It got to a point where the guys in rehabilitation [at places like] Walter Reed were saying, 'Hey, how come I have a 'guide dog' when he's helping me with all these other things?'"

In 2005, America's VetDogs — the only foundation in the country certified to raise both guide dogs and service dogs for military users — was born. The nonprofit has full access to the parent organization's eight-acre campus in Long Island, including its breeding program, classrooms and 30,000 square feet of kennels.

"The people there are dedicated; they're nuts about dogs, and they're versatile in what they do," says Schiff, who learned of America's VetDogs during high school in his native Chicago.

But the service, he found, doesn't come cheap. It takes two years, and costs tens of thousands of dollars, to breed, raise, train and find a match for a dog. And demand far outstrips supply.

One dog

Schiff noticed long ago, he says, that Annapolis is a dog lover's town, not to mention a city of runners and walkers. The idea for his event, then, was a natural. He and about a dozen other midshipmen have been putting up flyers and spreading the word online.

He's mildly disappointed that more corporate sponsors haven't stepped forward (several local companies have kicked in raffle prizes), and even if he triples his current roster of participants, at about $25 a head, he'd still fall well short of his goal.

But if history is any guide, the 20-year-old could find a way to reach it.

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