'We want our post to be known for this'

After helping another American Legion member raise the money to provide a service dog to a veteran around a year ago, Legionnaire David Hughes was sold. “It just struck me as such a great program,” he said.

It made enough of an impact on Hughes that he took the idea to his own American Legion Dornblaser Post 203 in Georgetown, Ill. And the post has ran with it.

Since last August, Post 203 has raised enough money through its Mission K9 Warrior program to fund the cost of providing and training four service dogs to area veterans battling post-traumatic stress disorder.

“We’re a pretty small post, but we have some younger guys now, and we really thought we could take this on,” Hughes said. “We voted on it, and it was a unanimous ‘yea.’ And history has been made.”

Hughes said the post began fundraising last summer and had raised enough money by Veterans Day to purchase and train three dogs for $7,500 each.

“It was a lot of hard work,” Hughes said of coming up with the funding. “We had raffles. We had bucket drops. We just asked folks if they would donate.

“By the day before Veterans Day we had enough for a dog and a half. By the end of Veterans Day – we had a silent auction, a live band, food and so forth, just a big Veterans Day celebration, and all proceeds went to the program – we had enough for a little over three dogs.”

After providing the third service dog, the price for each dog went up to $10,000. But the post still was able to raise enough for a fourth dog and is in the process and working toward a fifth.

Providing one of the dogs came with the help of a family that fully understands the toll PTSD can take on an individual. Last December, the family of Jim Washburn – a Vietnam Air Force veteran who took his own life in 2012 – donated $7,500 to the post for the program.

Normally, Hughes said, it costs between $20,000-$25,000 to provide a service dog to a veteran. But a member of the post, Tony Piatt, is the owner/lead trainer of Midwest Professional Canine Services in nearby Tilton, Ill., and provides the training at a discounted rate. He also locates the dogs to train and then gives each a five-point test to see if the dog is qualified to be a service animal.

Via social media, Post 203 comes into contact with veterans wanting a service dog. The veteran must be getting treatment for PTSD through the Department of Veterans Affairs, and have been stationed in or near a combat theater. The veteran also needs to be able to provide food to the dog and live within 50 miles of Tilton so as to be able to attend the dog’s training sessions. All other costs, including continuous training of the dog, are free to the veteran.

Hughes and a team of Legionnaires – Post Commander Ron Torbert, Tim White, Troy Pate, George Hayworth and Mark Wyer – vet candidates, and then get to see their reaction when the dog is united with its new owner.

One recipient of a dog, a Vietnam veteran, “smiled from ear to ear,” when meeting his dog Hughes said. “His demeanor went from kind of an anxious state to just smiling and talking. It was just a really neat thing.

“When I have personally been there to see the dog and the veteran meet for the first time ... this old vet becomes a blubbering idiot. It’s a pretty emotional scene. The reason these veterans reach out to us is because … something just seems like it’s not clicking. Something’s just not there. When you finally see them get emotional, kind of a sense of relief on their face …it’s pretty incredible.”

Other local organizations and businesses have reached out to Post 203 to offer their fundraising efforts to Mission K9 Warrior. “It’s really starting to catch on,” Hughes said. “It’s starting to have a ripple effect.”

Hughes said Post 203 will continue to raise funds for the project. “Kind of our little quote is ‘Our mission continues,’” he said. “We want this to go on forever. We want our post to be known for this specific thing. Our commander has adopted it and our whole community is adopting it. This is going to be ongoing.”

Hughes said that any American Legion post wanting to start a similar program can reach out to him at hughes_davi@yahoo.com. For more information about the program, check out Post 203’s Facebook page.