By Kimberly Brown
Military members who served overseas are facing countless battles, even after their missions have ended and it’s time to return home.
Depression, post-traumatic stress disorder and substance abuse disorder are just some obstacles veterans have developed, making it difficult for them to adjust to a routine lifestyle again. Luckily, Robert Misseri, founded in 2014 Paws of War — a Nesconset-based nonprofit to support veterans with service dogs.
“It started out with requests from overseas from active military members who asked for our assistance because they knew I had experience with getting dogs over previously,” he said.
One thing led to another, and soon Misseri was receiving more and more phone calls from retired or disabled veterans who had learned what he was doing. They would share their stories with him about animals they left behind overseas, and how heavy it weighed on their heart.
Knowing their mental health struggles, the veterans began asking Misseri if he could provide them with a service dog.
“Our mission we felt was unique in a way because we were using rescue dogs,” he said. “We would train the dog and the veteran each day, hand in hand in our facility. We slowly started to learn, not from them, but from their families, friends and doctors that whatever we were doing was really working.”
The formula Misseri created worked and he credits the dogs for making such a significant impact on the veterans. What he also learned was that his organization created an alumnus among the veterans who have served in different branches overseas. When all together in the Paws of War facility the veterans became a family, and it made them look forward to coming to training.
“Learning their struggles, and then learning what these dogs can do for them was so important because they also knew that they were helping the dog,” he said. “This wasn’t a dog that we bred or we bought. This is a dog that also likely had come from a difficult situation. That’s why ‘Helping both ends of the leash’ is our motto.”
One of the many military members Misseri helped was Northport resident Mary McCue, a combat Marine Corps veteran who worked as an ammunition technician overseas. She was honorably discharged as a sergeant after she served for six years — two years longer than a typical four-year term.
“I loved it, I was having a blast meeting great people and having great experiences,” McCue said. “I was just really enjoying it at the time, but it’s a lot of traveling and you get a little burnt out. Sometimes it seems so surreal because it’s a whole different world and a whole different life, and sometimes I look back and think ‘Wow, I went to war.’”
McCue created a Facebook page, “Ammo Company! Good Times, Support and Reunions,” to give Marine veterans a platform to support each other through being home, adjusting and missing the Marine Corps.
“A lot of our members are all over the country, so it’s nice to have an outlet where we can reach out and talk to each other because we’re so far apart — and sometimes it gets pretty lonely,” McCue said.
After leaving the Marine Corps, she said she had a difficult time adjusting to civilian life. Missing the comradery that comes along with being a part of the Marines left McCue feeling isolated upon her arrival back home.
“Being in the military, you’re taught to tough things out,” she said. “You don’t complain, you don’t ask questions. You do the mission at hand or people die. So, when you come home, you’re this hard tough person and it’s hard to come to grips with the fact that you may have come home with some type of mental defect.”
“I was sick and tired of not being able to let go of ‘Marine Mary,’ — I wanted to exist as a Marine and a civilian because they were both a part of me, and I really didn’t know how to go about doing that,”
— Mary McCue
It took a long time for McCue to admit that she came back a different person. The many experiences she had packed into six years of service sat with her. After years of not reaching out for help, she finally built up the courage to get counseling.
“I was sick and tired of not being able to let go of ‘Marine Mary,’ — I wanted to exist as a Marine and a civilian because they were both a part of me, and I really didn’t know how to go about doing that,” she said.
A friend of McCue’s introduced her to Paws of War. Being in a better place in her life and always having a love for dogs, she thought a service dog would be a beneficial addition. A year ago, right before the country locked down because COVID-19 cases were increasing, Misseri told McCue he found a sweet golden retriever named Abbie who was rescued from an abusive home in North Carolina
“Of course, I immediately fell in love with her,” she said. “Our personalities match up perfectly. It’s such a blessing that she came into my life.”
Due to the COVID pandemic, McCue wasn’t able to start training at the Paws of War facility until August, but fellow clients, veterans and Misseri always kept in contact with her and Abbie, making sure everything was going fine.
“Once we started training, I found purpose in my life again,” McCue said. “Since Abbie was a rescue, she had her quirks coming in, too. She was definitely physically and mentally abused, so it was like she was helping me, and I was helping her.”
Being able to work with other veterans during training helped McCue, as they were all able to understand what each other went through, therefore providing unconditional support for one another.
Abbie is currently doing at-home Zoom training and, according to McCue, is very smart and doing a great job.
“Abbie has truly changed my life for the better, and I’m in debt to Paws of War for the rest of my life because they were able to make this happen for me,” McCue said.
To learn more about Paws of War, visit pawsofwar.org/donate-today.