After serving 21 years in the U.S. Army — including a tour in Iraq — Steve Thomas had plenty of issues when it came to adjusting back to civilian life.

With nightmares and anxiety, and stress from people in public getting too close, the 49-year-old veteran was often anxious about even leaving the house for fear that his troubles might overwhelm him.

But thanks to a four-legged companion named Lady, the local man is able to live life more fully these days.

“She knows I have issues before I do,” Thomas said. “She always knows when I’m upset and will put her paw on me to let me know I’m kind of entering the ‘danger zone.’ That helps me focus and calms me down.

“If people get too close to me, she’ll even get between us to act as a barrier.”

Service dogs and their veteran owners such as Thomas will gather for a special event Oct. 17 at the Veterans National Memorial Shrine and Museum. “Our Turn to Serve Service Dogs and Veterans” is being produced and hosted by local group Our Turn to Serve.

The group expects about 10 to 15 vets and their service dogs to attend, along with several board members from OTTS, said Tamara Goodman, a local vet who’s helping to organize the occasion.

“As a board member of OTTS, it’s important to have a day of training and fellowship,” Goodman said in a statement. “It’s a great way to stay connected and sharpen training skills between the service dogs and the veterans.”

“It’s kind of a bivouac for both,” she added in the news release. “We’ll have a cookout, walk the property, and have great camaraderie with everyone in attendance.”

Goodman is herself a veteran, having served in the U.S. Army as a combat medic from 1988 to 1992. She was stationed in Germany, treating many of the casualties from Operations Desert Storm and Desert Shield in Iraq.

Her service dog, Gabriel, is a Lab and Rottweiler mix.

“He’s a good boy,” said Goodman, age 61. “He’s always right there to keep me grounded and say, ‘Hey, Mom, what’s up?’ “

The general public and U.S. service veterans are welcome to attend the event for free, OTTS officials said. The event at 2122 O’Day Road in Fort Wayne runs from 10 a.m.-2 p.m.

OTTS President David Harris explained his group’s mission.

“Veterans who are seeking help through the local VA are ultimately paired with a service dog,” Harris said in a news release. “After collaborating with counselors from the VA and identifying the needs of the veteran, the dog and veteran must complete an extensive yearlong training program with proper testing to receive final certification to ensure a successful match between both the veteran and the dog. Training costs are $10,000 per dog.”

The dogs go through three phases of testing to get certified, Harris explained. The first is training them to handle social situations, such as parks, parking lots and the like. The second is going into public stores with their handler. The third and final stage is teaching them how to navigate restaurants with their owners, along with all the accompanying sights, sounds, and particularly smells.

In terms of how a dog helps vets suffering from PTSD, Harris said the best way a service dog can aid a veteran who is experiencing PTSD is just by alerting him of his symptoms.

“If a vet begins to have an episode where they are, perhaps, flashing back to combat or another trauma, the dog will alert on the condition, and put their paw on the vet’s hand to give them a signal that they are in trouble,” Harris said. “The vet will then use the coping skills they’ve learned to deal with the attack effectively.”

OTTS began in 2009 as a group that was supporting a unit of Marines serving in Iraq, mostly by sending them care packages, Harris said. “Those men inspired us and we decided that to help these all-volunteer service members, we could do a little more to help those with a physical or emotional disability.”

The group has evolved to become a not-for-profit organization that trains service dogs to work with veterans who suffer from PTSD or other service-related trauma. The group serves a 10-county area in northeast Indiana, and receives most of its funding from individual donors and corporate sponsors.

Harris noted that one of the group’s major sponsors, Wal-Mart, allows OTTS to use one of their Auburn stores for training, letting the dogs and veterans walk the sales floor to get them acclimated to a retail environment.

Thomas, the local veteran who has owned Lady since 2013, said help in stores like that is invaluable to his daily routine.

Lady, a black Lab mix, has just turned 10 and is set to retire in the coming weeks. Thomas already has a new rescued black Lab puppy from OTTS named Aela ready to take Lady’s place when she retires.

For more information on the service dogs, contact Lori Garrett at the VA Hospital at (260) 426-5431, or by email at lori.garrett@va.gov.

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