Four-legged life changers

Two veterans who received service dogs from the Port Washington American Legion say their companions help them cope with the scars of combat

PROJECT BRAVO, which pairs area veterans with service and therapy dogs, celebrated its first two matches last weekend at the Van Ells-Schanen American Legion Hall in Port Washington. Celebrating were (front row, from left) veterans Jesse Lovell and his service dog Oliver and Justin Wedward and his therapy dog Bailey, (second row), Auxiliary President Diane Burkhalter, dog trainers Liz Sanders and Pam Wittkopp, (back row) Wisconsin Auxiliary President Diane Weggen, Legion Commander John Jacque, dog trainer Jim Melis, Dog2DogTags founder Torre Willadson, dog trainerJamie Melis, Wisconsin Legion Commander Greg Eirich and dog trainer Krystal Kath. Photo by Sam Arendt
By 
KRISTYN HALBIG ZIEHM
Ozaukee Press staff

Army veteran Jesse Lovell said his service dog Oliver has given him a new lease on life since he got the Labrador-Great Pyrenees earlier this year.

“It got pretty dark for me this winter,” said Lovell, who said issues relating to his time in the military caused his world to shrink. “I wasn’t leaving my apartment unless I ran out of food.”

But now that he has Oliver, he has been going on daily walks as long as three miles. He’s able to visit stores more freely and socialize.

“It’s a whole new world,” Lovell said. “He’s opened up the world.”

Justin Wedward, who served in the Army National Guard, said his world has also gotten bigger now that he has a therapy dog. Bailey is a pit bull-terrier mix who he’s had since January.

“She’s always by my side, no matter what,” he said. “That’s my best buddy there. She’s been a godsend.”

Wedward said he is disabled and suffers from hypervigilance, anxiety, insomnia and post-traumatic stress disorder. Bailey, he said, helps him cope.

When he starts to feel overwhelmed, she helps him relax and manage the stress, Wedward said. She makes it easier for him to sleep and get through the day.

“I know I feel safe with her by my side,” he said.

The men, who both live in Port Washington, got their dogs through Project Bravo, an initiative undertaken by the Van Ells-Schanen American Legion Post 82  and its Auxiliary.

The project was approved by the Auxiliary in October 2019 and the Legion two months later.

Since then, they’ve raised $60,000 and provided service dogs to three area veterans, and they’re working on getting the funds for a fourth animal.

Auxiliary President Diane Burkhalter, who spearheaded the project, said it has its roots in concerns expressed by her late husband Tom, who was the county’s veteran services officer.

“One of his biggest concerns was more veterans would be returning and they’d have more injuries to deal with,” Burkhalter said.

Suicides among veterans were another concern, she said, so she started looking at ways the Auxiliary could help.

Her research led her to service dogs.

“One of the best tools for prevention is having a service dog,” she said, noting that the canines can help with a host of conditions, depending on their training.

“The dogs can help them do things they’re no longer able to,” Burkhalter said.

Project Bravo works with four agencies to help get dogs for area veterans in need — an expensive proposition. The basic training for a service dog is about $20,000, and the pricetag goes up with additional training for specific needs.

There are plenty of veterans in need of service animals, Burkhalter said, but she’s found that it’s often difficult for vets to seek out the help.

“The most common thing I hear from the vets is, ‘There’s probably someone else who’s needing it more,’” she said.

But she knows of at least 12 veterans in the area — the project extends outside of Ozaukee County to encompass vets in much of southeastern Wisconsin — who could use a service dog, and she and the auxiliary are determined to keep going until all the vets who need a canine have one.

“We’re going to keep the project going,” she said. “We’re not going to stop.”

Lovell, who was in the Marine Corps for eight years and the National Guard for 12 years — from 1983 to 2003, serving in the Gulf War and Operation Enduring Freedom — said he had been trying to get a service dog to no avail.

“I was calling all over the country,” he said. “Some places said, ‘We’ve got a two-year waiting list.’”

Others had long application forms, and still others had a plethora of red tape.

But then he stopped at Port’s Legion Hall for a fundraising event and got to talking with Burkhalter, who told him about Project Bravo.   

It didn’t take long before he was matched with Oliver.

Lovell said he suffered injuries to his back and hearing while in the military. He has hyperacusis, which increases his sensitivity to sounds of all types.

“Sound causes me pain. Even the music in the stores bothers me,” he said, noting only close friends and his family understood his issues. “It makes life really difficult. Having something like that makes it very difficult to be social. I spent a lot of time alone.”

But Oliver keeps him centered and gives him something to concentrate on other than the noise of life, making things bearable again.

“He’s my partner 24/7, wherever I go, whatever I do,” Lovell said, noting the dog has also helped him deal with his back injury and eased his depression and anxiety.

And, he said, while Oliver has saved his life in many ways, he’s also saved Oliver’s life. That’s because the dog was in a Texas kill shelter just an hour away from being euthanized when Dogs2DogTags picked him up to become a service dog.

Wedward, who served in the National Guard from 2006 to 2014 and did tours in the Middle East, Eastern Europe and the Balkans, said his mother met Burkhalter and talked to her about the problems he was having, and she immediately got him on the line.

“I didn’t even know there was a possibility of getting a service dog,” he said.

Burkhalter connected him with Dogs2DogTags as well, and the agency found Bailey. The agency does a great job of matching vets and dogs, he said.

“She’s always by my side,” he said, day and night. “We’ve been a team since the first day. We have some of the same issues, and we help each other through them. She relies on me, and I rely on her.”

Wedward said he wants to help get the message out to other veterans who need help.

“We have too many veterans who commit suicide. They can’t face themselves, and these dogs can help them with that,” he said. “We have to let them know this is out there for them.”

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Wisconsin’s largest paid circulation community weekly newspaper. Serving Port Washington, Saukville, Grafton, Fredonia, Belgium, as well as Ozaukee County government. Locally owned and printed in Port Washington, Wisconsin.

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