Nonprofit began in 2010 to pair service dogs with clients who need help

Published in the August 2 – August 15, 2017 issue of Morgan Hill Life

By Jebidiah Goldman

Photo courtesy Operation Freedom Paws
U.S. Marine Corps veteran Mike and his dog Jewel interact. The nonprofit pairs dogs with veterans and others with disabilities to help them adjust to life.

For years Dennis McLaughlin experienced the emotional pain of post-traumatic stress disorder. Five years ago someone referred the Vietnam War U.S. Army veteran to Operation Freedom Paws, a San Martin-based nonprofit that connects people with dogs and helps them deal with PTSD and other disabling challenges.

The training the clients and canines go through in the program enables the veterans to find peace in themselves and live normal lives. In McLaughlin’s case, Operation Freedom Paws completely revitalized his life by connecting him with Abbey, a friendly Great Dane who pulled him out of a very dark psychological hole. The two have been together for five years and the incredible bond they share is evident upon first sight of this dynamic duo.

One of the most difficult challenges service men and women face in returning from the disciplined world of the military is the process of becoming civilians again. Just because they left the battlefield does not mean the battlefield left them. And the new battles they fight tend to be within themselves in the form of flashbacks or nightmares, haunting them as they strive to forget what they experienced and get on with their lives. McLaughlin faced that challenge.

“Up until the time I found out about Operation Freedom Paws, I was pretty much stuck at home, not going anywhere, really withdrawn, suffered a lot of depression and nightmares, flashbacks and had really no way of dealing with it,” he said. “Since starting the program back in July of 2012, I’ve learned all of the different tools of managing. I still have flashbacks, but the dog alerts me prior to the possibilities to make sure I’m more aware of possible triggers so I can be prepared in circumstances.”

McLaughlin is one of more than 250 people who have been admitted into the program since it began in 2010. The organization is the brainchild of Mary Cortani, a Vietnam veteran who was always competent in training with dogs and was one of the first female master instructors in the U.S. military. Operation Freedom Paws has positively impacted the lives of hundreds of veterans in Gilroy, Morgan Hill and throughout California.

“The military is black and white, they don’t teach you to be a civilian,” she said. “They actually tear you down and build you up to be the soldier, the Marine, the corpsman, whatever it is. That black and white means you know you have to toe the line. That gray area is so nonexistent when you come out, it’s hard to transition because civilian life is made up of a lot of gray and we don’t realize that. We navigate it everyday.”

The transition back is hard for many. Cortani was no exception.

“I had my first struggle in transition when I got out of the service and I know what that struggle for transition is,” she said. “Now I don’t have a disability, but it was still bad enough so I can only imagine if there was a disability.”

Cortani has a unique understanding of the challenges her clients face and her experiences in her former life as a vet helped put her on this unexpected path of working with pets and vets. It all began one night with a desperate phone call from someone who needed help.

“It’s my passion (training dogs) and I’ve never stopped, and I got a phone call from a Marine,” she recalled. “If you’ve ever spoken to somebody, even on the phone, who is suicidal or who is close to being suicidal, you will hear it, you will feel it and if you have any sense of compassion you will try to help.”

Cortani gave the man her word that she would try. The Marine, who had been on a waiting list for traditional service dog training for years, was getting nowhere. To speed up the process, he went and got a dog he decided he would train, and he began the process of seeking help from professional trainers. They wanted to charge upward of $10,000, money he could not afford. He felt defeated.

Finding Cortani changed everything. She promised she could help, pulling from her experiences, her passions and what she was able to learn about service pets and their impact on people who relied on them. That call started her on a journey to help others, which led to the creation of Operation Freedom Paws.

The organization is built on relationships. It’s driven by Mary’s dedication to the people who need help and the dogs who provide them with that assistance. Many clients have been personally assigned their dog assistants by Cortani. The pet and human relationship gets an added boost with what Cortani calls “puppy yoga.” This is a tradition held at the end of class where vets and pets unwind together while doing relaxing exercises together, deepening their bond. In a class of upward of 20 to 30 people, Cortani can call out any one of the individuals by first name as well as the name of their dog. She feels comfortable visiting either a veteran or a dog if they seem stressed or are having problems.

As the relationships begin, Cortani comes out of the front building to greet her clients. She immediately creates a welcoming atmosphere that encourages everyone to be themselves. For many it’s the first time in a long time where they can take a break from the stresses of life and just be with their dog and other people facing similar challenges.

The organization does meaningful work and has clearly created a tremendous value for the South Valley community, one reason it has gained support from individuals and businesses in the region. Waste management company Recology provides it with property, located next to the San Martin Transfer Station, for a lease of $1 a year. This includes a large office and a training center shelter.

“(Operation Freedom Paws) relies on donations from the public and our fundraisers to raise money.” Cortani said. “With our events we’ve been able to have corporate match donors, (but) this year we’re struggling to find one and we’re hoping . . . we can find one.”

Operation Freedom Paws will host its annual Wine Gala on the property Saturday, Aug. 12. Janet King, Cortani’s executive assistant as well as “the backbone” of the operation, said, “Since this is a safe place for our clients and they can be with their service dogs publicly, the event is a chance for the public to see what they’re supporting and talk to some of clients and find out how the dogs have affected their lives and how the training has affected their lives.”

For McLaughlin with help from his service dog Abbey, that effect has been dramatic. “I’m going into my fifth year here in about a week and this program has given me my life back,” he said.

DETAILS

What: Operation Freedom Paws Wine Gala 2017
When: 5 to 10 p.m. Aug. 12
Where: 13920 Llagas Ave., San Martin
Tickets: $75 in advance, $95 at the door. Available at (408) 891-4357 or denrichards@firstam.com or online at www.ofpwinegala.eventbrite.com