Since returning from active duty in Vietnam in 1968, New Jersey resident Ralph Talbot has felt extremely uncomfortable in crowded, public spaces.
"I never thought I'd be able to sit down with my back exposed ever again," Talbot said. "But this week it happened."
Ten days ago, Talbot was paired with his service dog, Honey. Trained through ECAD [Educated Canines Assisting with Disabilities], Honey helps her owner navigate crowds and allay his anxiety when Talbot begins to feel uncomfortable.
"We took a trip to the mall this week, and she knew when I was becoming anxious," Talbot said. "Yesterday I called my wife and said, 'Saturday morning we're going out to breakfast.' She said, 'What!'"
Talbot and Honey were one of four veteran-service dog pairs that graduated from ECAD's Project HEAL program Wednesday in Hastings.
Funded entirely through private donations, Project HEAL matches service dogs with wounded warriors. This week's graduation was especially moving because one serviceman—Shane Walton—is currently active duty, living and working at Fort Drum Army Base in New York.
"That the Army is allowing an active member to have a service dog means that they're really stepping up and taking better care of our soldiers," said Lu Picard, who founded ECAD with her husband Dale.
Walton was injured while serving in Kirkuk, Iraq in 2008-9. "If I'm upset or having an anxiety attack, the dog takes the stress away," Walton said.
Also unique to ECAD is that all dogs are trained by at-risk youth at alternative schools, including local in Dobbs Ferry and the in Hastings.
"The kids who train the dogs don't realize that while they're trying to get their lives together, they're helping other people get their lives together," said Dale Picard.
"This program creates a virtuous circle," said Hastings Mayor Peter Swiderski. "The four groups working together [students, dogs, volunteers and veterans] make a seamless web of good."
After recognizing the students who helped train Honey and the many local volunteers who opened their homes to her during weekends, Talbot assured everyone that even though they might miss her, Honey will be providing an invaluable service.
"I was becoming more and more locked in—staying in my house," Talbot said. "The VA kept drugging me up with new pills, but nothing worked."
Pointing to Honey, he said: "Believe it or not, she works. She saved my life. I want you to think about that every time you miss her."
Learn more about ECAD and Project HEAL here.