Nonprofit organization uses service dogs and counseling to boost US military veterans

The Warrior Canine Connection is just one of the programs and services made available free of charge to veterans and their families by Forward Flag, which is funded by grants and donations. (Front flag)

(Tribune News Service) – Navy veteran Beverly Francisco-James brushes Dreamer, a year-and-a-half-old yellow English Labrador, and the dog seems to like it just fine.

Francisco-James, 58, and Dreamer just completed a service dog training session at the Albuquerque facility of Forward Flag, a nonprofit serving veterans and their families.

A brain hemorrhage caused Francisco-James to lose sight, hearing and feeling on the left side, but she was able to move around remarkably well with the help of a service dog.

Dreamer, however, is not his dog. She trains the lab to help someone else, maybe another military veteran. Despite everything, Francisco-James benefited from this class as much, perhaps even more, than the husky Yellow Lab.

“It improves my skills,” she said. “It helps me see the personalities of different dogs.”

Navy veteran Robert Candelaria, 59, said vets were getting more dogs than they were returning.

“Just being with these dogs, you decompress,” he said.

The training program is called Warrior Canine Connection and is run by Santa Fe-based Assistance Dogs of the West in partnership with Forward Flag. ADW brings the Santa Fe dogs to the Forward Flag facility at 204 Madeira NE for weekly sessions.

“Working with dogs gives veterans a way to give back and feel good about themselves,” said Ari Jontry, ADW Instructor, Trainer and Veterans Liaison. “And it’s a great way for anxious veterans to focus on something other than their anxiety.”

To speak is to heal

The Warrior Canine Connection is just one of the programs and services made available free of charge to veterans and their families by Forward Flag, which is funded by grants and donations.

There is a small gym for workouts within the organization’s facilities. There are art classes, guitar lessons, game nights, a weekly potluck, and a rolling mural of an RV used on outreach trips from Columbus to Raton.

And there are weekly counseling rooms and one-on-one sessions where veterans can talk to each other about things that are on their minds, things that only another veteran can fully understand.

When it was founded in 2013 by Army veteran Roger Pipkins and Navy veteran John McGill, Forward Flag’s sole mission was to raise awareness of the high suicide rate among veterans and provide ways to prevent veteran suicides. And even though the organization has moved into other areas, suicide prevention is still a major focus.

Nationally, an average of 20 veterans commit suicide every day for reasons ranging from PTSD to depression, alcohol and drug abuse and more.

A 2021 study by the RAND Corporation, a research organization, reported that in 2018, 32 veterans per 100,000 people committed suicide, compared to 17.2 non-veterans per 100,000 people.

“Most suicidal thoughts, bad thoughts, are just there to attack you,” Candelaria said. “What helps is just talking to other vets. Talking to others is part of our healing. We as veterans may not be of the same blood, but we are all brothers.

Army veteran Ted Skibyak, 61, is a Forward Flag volunteer who teaches suicide prevention classes “to anyone I can get to listen to me.”

He said cost, transportation and stigma are among the biggest barriers preventing people (veterans and non-veterans) from getting help when they feel suicidal.

“One thing about Warriors is that they have a hard time asking for help,” Skibyak said. “The VA (Veterans Combatants) gives veterans a number to call. They won’t call this number. The VA tells them about the programs. They don’t go to these meetings.

“But just getting veterans here (Forward Flag) and stopping self-isolating is a big step forward. Because when vets isolate, bad things happen.

Forward Flag uses and teaches the Question, Persuade, Refer (QPR) suicide prevention program, which helps people recognize the signs of a suicidal crisis, interview individuals, convince them to seek help, and show them where to get it.

“You’re looking for clues about people considering suicide, like donating valuable possessions,” Skibyak said. “Here we have people who can detect clues. Sometimes (turning things around) is as simple as asking someone “What’s going on?” or ‘How are you?’

A new task

Skibyak grew up in Las Cruces. He was on active duty in the Army for three years, in the Army Reserve for 22 years, and served in the New Mexico Army National Guard for 12 years. Skibyak has also worked as a policeman, paramedic and paramedic. He did a year-long combat tour of Iraq with the New Mexico National Guard’s 126th Military Police Company.

“When I came back from Iraq in March 2006, I thought I was fine,” he said. “But my wife kept waking up with bruises because I guess I was struggling in bed at night. My wife said that I knew more Arabic when I was talking in my sleep than when I was awake.

“I was involved in several explosions in Iraq, but I don’t know if my PTSD comes from Iraq. It could have been from my work as a police officer, or from seeing small children that I couldn’t save when I was an ambulance driver.

Unlike some veterans, Skibyak wasn’t afraid to ask for help and he got through this tough time with VA guidance.

But in November 2015, while employed as a police officer in Jemez Pueblo, a pickup truck hit Skibyak while he was riding a Yamaha motorcycle for a National Guard training session.

His injuries were horrific – bleeding in the brain, broken ribs in several places, blood clots in the lungs and right leg, loss of seven inches of small intestine. The nerves in his right arm were torn from his spinal cord.

“I have a little movement and feeling in that arm, but it’s almost dead,” he said.

Perhaps the worst damage he suffered was depression.

“The army was retiring me,” he said. “I was losing contact with my troops. I was losing my job with Jemez Pueblo. I thought I was useless. I could not do anything. I was lost.”

But that’s when he found Forward Flag.

In 2016, Skibyak, who had just been cleared to drive again, pulled into the parking lot of an Albuquerque hotel so he could take a phone call. Before leaving, he saw a Forward Flag travel trailer, the predecessor to the RV the organization uses today for its outreach efforts. He checked it out and met Forward Flag founder Roger Pipkins.

“Roger gave me a new mission,” Skibyak said. “He said, ‘Go home and take this online course and come back tomorrow and help me enroll people in a suicide prevention course. I kind of found that I needed a mission to continue. Now the veterans are my troops.

just be there

Six dogs — three yellow Labradors, two black Labradors and Skibyak’s 4-year-old black and white Australian Shepherd, Hawkeye — are through their paces during the Warrior Canine Connection course at Forward Flag.

“Tripper, let’s go.

“Franklin, go to bed.”

Lisa Veres, 57, who served as a nurse in the Navy, is there with her black lab, Hedy, named after Hedy Lamarr, the glamorous Hollywood actress of the 30s, 40s and 50s and also a renowned inventor .

Veres, who uses a walker due to spinal cord injuries, brought Hedy through Assistance Dogs of the West and also discovered Forward Flag because of his association with AWD.

“She’ll take a credit card for me, a penny,” Veres said of Hedy. “If my walker rolls, she’ll pick it up for me.”

Veres, who worked as a chaplain, believes in Forward Flag and its mission.

“I think what they’re doing is great,” she said. “I love the camaraderie of being around other veterans. And it’s good for my dog ​​to be around other dogs.

Skibyak boasts of Hawkeye, named after Alan Alda’s character in ‘M*A*S*H,’ the 1970s and 1980s TV series

“He can open and close doors for me,” Skibyak said. “When my CPAP goes off at night, it wakes me up. But the best thing it does is be there.

(c)2022 the Albuquerque Journal (Albuquerque, New Mexico)

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