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The Villages
Sunday, April 14, 2024

Graduation day celebrated for service dogs who will assist veterans in need

Four veterans who had incurred life-changing disabilities during their military service now have new leases-on-life as they received specially-trained service dogs during official graduation ceremonies Saturday at the American Legion Post 347.

One of the dogs, Sarge, had been sponsored by Villagers For Veterans and was presented to Marine Sergeant Kevin St. Amant. 

Marie Bogdonoff, Villagers For Veterans president, greets Sarge and his new best friend Kevin St. Amant.

“This is our first dog to graduate from the two-year-long program conducted by Patriot Service Dogs (PSD) in Belleview,” explained Marie Bogdonoff, founder and president of Villagers For Veterans.  “We also are underwriting the training of four others dogs.  We hope to present two each for the next two years to other deserving veterans.”

Patriot Service Dogs provides active duty and honorably discharged veterans who have disabilities from conditions such as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, mobility incapacities, traumatic brain injuries, or loss of a limb.

Volunteers of the PSD and the Dynamic Dog Club serving as hosts, from left, Roz Wenrich, Pat Stafford, Susan Parks, Joyce Wichie, Jan Gracely and Nancy Behr.

The non-profit organization partnered with Florida’s Department of Corrections to conduct the extensive training program at the Lowell Correctional Institute — a women’s prison, in Marion County. The initiative, Women Offering Obedience and Friendship started in 2011.

Five dogs undergo an eight-week course in basic commands conducted by specially-selected inmates in anticipation of their adoption.  PSD reports that all of its pups are placed in “forever” homes.

Other dogs are chosen for PSD’s Patriot Dogs In-Training Progam.  WOOF volunteers, following PSD guidelines, are responsible for the dogs’ total training and around-the-clock care.

During weekends, the dogs are placed in volunteer homes to provide socialization and expose them to real-world experiences, such as riding in cars or going to restaurants and stores. Many of these volunteer “raisers” are Villagers arranged by Villagers For Veterans.

Prior to graduation, the dogs are matched to applicants’ specific disabilities.

St. Amant already has been benefiting from his new friend.

“This has been an awesome experience. I now have a partner in life,” he said.  “Sarge has been a great asset and has given me the physical abilities to do what I can’t, and the emotional support that I need.”

Villagers for Veterans is responsible for all the dog’s expenses, such as food and medications. It also pays for the veteran’s travel expenses to Belleview to undergo familiarization and training. The total is around $5,000.

Because PSD relies on community volunteers and the inmates, and accepts donated dogs, the fees are considerably less than the $15,000 to $20,000 fees charged by other training programs.

One of the ceremony’s speakers was Army Green Beret Brian Anderson, who talked about his 36-months of wartime experiences in Afghanistan’s Kandahar Province, and now his appreciation for his service dog, Hero, that he had received due to a war-related nervous breakdown.

Three recipients of the PSD service dogs are Brian Anderson, Mike Morales and Deborah Franz with Hero, Hawkeye and Cordelia.

“People look at you and think that you’re ‘normal,’ but they don’t know the mental fog that you’re in and the pressure you’re under,” he explained.  “Hero has given me support so I can return to being with my family.”  

He also spoke about his Army budy Mike Morales, who had just received Hawkeye.  

“Mike was hit by a RPG (rocket propelled grenade) in 2014.  With severe head injuries, he was flown to Walter Reed Hosptial, where they didn’t expect him to live. Now, he has a titanium plate in his head — so I say, ‘he’s half man – half robot.'” 

The program emcee was Julie Sanderson, PSD’s CEO and co-founder.  

“I am more than overwhelmed by the Villagers’ generosity and support. In the past, we would have 60-70 people at our graduations. Today, we’re expecting a capacity crowd of 350,” she said. “Just tell us whatever you need. There has been an abundance of love.”

The impact of this WOOF program has been noticeably felt by all those involved.

“This has been a great opportunity for inmates to start over with their lives and possibly start new careers,” Bogdoff said. “As importantly four veterans, who had incurred life-changing disabilities because of their military service, also can begin their lives again. The Villagers For Veterans board and I are delighted to realize how our members’ efforts are being realized.”

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