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Paws of War

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Contractors volunteer time, supplies needed renovate Nesconset Plaza shopping center storefront

Veteran Henry Stolberg, far left, greet others inside Paws of War’s new Nesconset location. Photo by Kyle Barr

Nesconset nonprofit Paws of War is busy wagging their tails, happy to have a brand-new dog house.

With the aid of local contractors, the nonprofit organization, which supplies and helps train service dogs for veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder or other mental illness, has now moved to a new location that features more space for dog training and new room for grooming.

Robert Misseri, president of Paws of War, said when they opened the old space a year ago it quickly became apparent the size of the location was simply not enough to cover how many retired service members were coming to them for help.

“There was an explosion of needs — with constant referrals by [Veterans Affairs], and we realized we needed to expand and expand quick,” Misseri said.

There was an explosion of needs — with constant referrals by [Veterans Affairs], and we realized we needed to expand and expand quick.”

— Robert Misseri

Paws of War is now at a location just a few stores down in the Nesconset Plaza shopping center from their previous storefront, but the space is double that of what they previously had. It includes twice the floor space for dog training as well as a backroom area that Misseri said is planned to be used for dog grooming and care.

Henry Stolberg, a marine veteran and volunteer for Paws of War, said that since getting his dog, a black Labrador named Rocky, life has become so much easier to bear. Rocky was trained in a partnership with Suffolk County Correctional Facility in Yaphank that allowed a veteran inmate named Jermaine to help train the dog for Stolberg.

“Now he goes everywhere with me,” Stolberg said. “Rocky can break me out of nightmares at night, if I have anxiety attacks, he will put his pressure on me, and when I get angry, he will pick up on it and he’ll alert me that I have to calm down.”

When Paws of War originally announced their intent to move into a new space, Misseri worried about finding a way to furnish and remodel what had once been a Dollar Store, where the carpet and walls were worn down with misuse and age. Luckily Ed Rollins, the owner of NDA Kitchens, a local Nesconset contractor, along with a number of subcontractors, all stepped up to help supply all the labor and materials completely free for the nonprofit.

“They showed me the space and it was disgusting … [Misseri] was telling me what they need, walking around in circles, and I turned to him and said ‘Rob, I got this,’” Rollins said. “Everybody, all the subcontractors, said the same thing I did: ‘dogs and veterans? I’m in.’”

By Kyle Barr

Fallen U.S. Airman Christopher Raguso, who perished in a March 15 helicopter crash, promised his Commack family he would get them a dog upon his return. Although he never came home, a local organization has stepped in to fulfill his pledge.

Paws of War, a Nesconset-based nonprofit that helps connect dogs with veterans and retired law
enforcement as companion animals or to be trained as service dogs, gifted a 4-month-old black Labrador named Calvin to the family Aug. 24.

“I didn’t sleep at all last night I was so excited,” Raguso’s wife, Carmela, said. “We needed this — we’re wounded, our dad was a warrior, our hearts are broken and maybe this dog can help us.”

Carmela Raguso told her two daughters, Eva, 5, and Mila,7, when the truck rolled up it was just their family friend, Joe Bachert, a retired member of the New York City Fire Department, bringing his own dogs for them to play with. Instead, Bachert came out of the vehicle with Calvin cradled in his arms.

Eva ran forward with her arms outstretched, screaming with delight, and started to hug and kiss the young pooch. Mila asked her mother if the dog was theirs, who responded that of course he was. 

“I’ve been dreaming about this,” Eva said, as she held Calvin’s head close to hers. “I like him so much.”

Raguso’s wife said Eva took the death of her father hard. The couple’s youngest had taken to sleeping in bed with her, “to keep her father’s side of the bed warm.” Now, with the addition of Calvin, Eva said she will be sleeping in her own bed with Calvin always at her side.

“To have this dog be her buddy and especially be her sleeping buddy, maybe she’ll sleep well,” Raguso’s wife said. “It’s been tough, but we put one foot in front of the other — we honor the dead by living.”

Raguso was one of seven members of New York’s 106th Rescue Wing killed in the line of duty when a H-60 Pave Hawk helicopter crashed while carrying out a mission in support of Operation Inherent Resolve, an American-led mission to defeat ISIS in Iraq and Syria, according to the U.S. Department of Defense. 

“One can’t even imagine what the family is going through, and we hope that this adds a little sunlight to their lives because they’ve been in darkness for some time,” said Smithtown resident Robert Misseri, a co-founder of Paws of War.

The black Lab was just one of a litter of 11 puppies that Paws of War’s sister organization and nonprofit rescue group Guardians of Rescue saved from a high-kill shelter in Louisiana, days before they would have been put down, according to Misseri. The rest of the dogs will be given to other veterans and veterans’ families either as a companion animal or be fully trained as a service dog.

The Nesconset nonprofit provided the Raguso family with a puppy starter kit that included everything from food to toys, and even a cage. Calvin is already leash trained and housebroken, and Misseri said the rest of the dog’s training will be provided for free.

“The goal is just to make their lives better and put smiles on their faces,” said Bachert, who is a member of Paws of War and served as Raguso’s drill instructor in the Commack firefighter academy.

By all accounts, Calvin was excited to be with his new family, but he was still nervous of new places. As the family tried to bring him into the house the young puppy shied away from the door. 

It was only when Eva went inside, suddenly upset by a rush of emotions, that Calvin darted after her. He instinctively knew his role with the family, to comfort them in their continued grief.

Tom Lambui leads a dog through an obstacle course designed to distract at the Paws of War Nesconset facility. Photo by Kyle Barr

Those servicemen and women who have had their dog trained at the Nesconset nonprofit Paws of War know the best companion to have when past trauma returns, is a trained service dog at their side.

“You can’t imagine how much dogs make an impact on your life,” said Frank James, a retired police officer from the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey.

James is training his dog Bailey for service dog certification through Paws of War, an organization which helps provide service dogs and train them for retired service members. The former police officer said having a service dog has helped him deal with the effects of post-traumatic stress disorder after being at the scene of the World Trade Center on 9/11.

Russell Keyser sits with his service dog, Artemis. Photo by Kyle Barr

“She’s helped significantly, really significantly,” he said.

For the last five years, Paws of War has provided service dogs and emotional support dogs along with the necessary training to veterans of all stripes, from those in the armed services to former cops and emergency responders. Robert Misseri, a co-founder of Paws of War, said the nonprofit provides the training for service members entirely free of charge.

“If they are approved, we train their dog at the very least, with all behavioral training to work toward a service animal for their needs,” Misseri said.

U.S. Army veteran Russell Keyzer, of Ronkonkoma, said he got his service dog,  Artemis, through Paws of War three years ago. Artemis has helped Keyzer get through the most difficult parts of his post-military life, including managing the effects of his PTSD.

“I was in really, really bad shape when I got her.” he said. “I got her at two months old, and I started training right away. Things were a lot more therapeutic on my end — to get back to that normal life.”

Keyzer said Artemis helped save him during a difficult situation at a June 22 Foreigner concert at Northwell Health at Jones Beach Theater. When the lights flashed and the music cut through the noise of the
audience, Keyzer said he started to tense up and his PTSD that has haunted him since he left the Army, started to creep into his head. He knew he couldn’t be there anymore.

Paws of War trains service dogs, like Phoenix, for veterans, former law enforcement and first responders. Photo by Kyle Barr

“Get me the (expletive) out of here,” Keyzer recalled saying to Artemis.

With his hand wrapped around the dog’s leash, Artemis helped guide the distraught veteran through the crowd, away from the noise and the lights, until they reached emergency medical personnel.

Suffolk County officials have come to recognize Paws of War and the work it does. On July 2, Suffolk Sheriff  Errol Toulon Jr. (D) announced a 2-year-old black Labrador named Rocky to be trained by inmate Jermaine, a veteran himself diagnosed with PTSD who is currently serving time at the Suffolk County Correctional Facility in Yaphank. Jermaine will train the dog twice a week for eight weeks, before Rocky will be given to Babylon resident Harry Stolberg, a single father and Marine Corps veteran who also has PTSD.

Those interested can watch Rocky’s training live online at the website www.suffolksheriff.com with the first broadcast scheduled for July 4.

Misseri said that so many veterans have become interested in the program that the organization needs to move into a larger space. They have already picked one out — a storefront located in the same Nesconset Plaza shopping center on Smithtown Boulevard as their current home. Misseri said the new location would provide the organization with hundreds more square feet of space.

Mark Hayward works on training his service dog, Phoenix, at VetDogs in Nesconset. Photo by Kyle Barr

“We could really serve so many more veterans,” Misseri said. “There’s plenty of people who want to go into a class with our current space, but we can only take 10 people per lesson — in this new space we could take 30.”

Paws of War is entirely funded by donations and spends most of its money paying for dog trainers. It is seeking out volunteer plumbers, painters, electricians, carpenters, floor specialists and sign makers to help renovate the new shop.

In the meantime, veterans find hope for the future in the form of their dogs. Mark Hayward, an Army veteran who participated in Operation Desert Storm, walked his dog, Phoenix, through obstacles designed to
distract her. Every time she went through the course without turning her head, Hayward would look down and smile at her.

“It’s between night and day from before I got her in 2016 and now,” he said. “She helps me get out and do things a lot more. I named her Phoenix because, like they say, she is helping me rise from the ashes.”

Those veterans who are interested in obtaining a service dog, or individuals willing to volunteer their assistance in the organization’s upcoming move, can contact Paws of War at at 631-367-7297 or online at www.pawsofwar.org.

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