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Life-saving partners: Veterans honor their service dogs at Duquesne U. ceremony

Army veteran Sami Erbecker stopped her car on a bridge last month and got out of the vehicle because, she said, “I was going to jump.”

Her dog, named Angel, “blocked” her, she said, preventing the Mount Pleasant resident from walking to the bridge rail. “I got back in the car and went home because I could not leave Angel behind.”

“If it was not for Angel, I would not be standing here,” Ms. Erbecker told more than 100 people, many of them military veterans, on Tuesday at Duquesne University. She was teamed with Angel just five months ago. “The dog keeps me grounded,” she said.

Angel and three other German shepherds were guests of honor with their partners at the symbolic Passing of the Leash ceremony that marks their partnership with three local military veterans and a retired Philadelphia police officer.

Angel, Spangle and Nick were bred and trained at Guardian Angels Medical Service Dogs in Williston, Fla., to help the vets deal with depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, traumatic brain injury, night terrors and other issues caused by their service.

Juice was trained for Ken Webb, a retired Philadelphia police officer who was diagnosed with PTSD and depression following a career that included having his partner killed in the line of duty and three officers in his squad committing suicide.

Ms. Erbecker had hoped the Army would be her career. She enlisted right after high school. After reporting to her superiors that she had been sexually assaulted by a fellow soldier, she said she was hazed. “People became hostile.”

Ms. Erbecker had panic attacks, suffered from depression and couldn’t sleep, she said. She was told she was “no longer fit for duty” and was honorably discharged in 2013, after just 10 months of service.

Diagnosed with PTSD, she seldom left her house until she was teamed with Angel in January.

Dustin Schneider, of Mount Washington, served five tours of duty in eight years, starting in 1998. His service included working with military dogs that detect improvised explosive devices.

After multiple concussions and a traumatic brain injury, Mr. Schneider’s military career ended far sooner than he had intended.

The service of his dog, Spangle — like “The Star-Spangled Banner,” he says — includes waking him up before his night terrors can haunt him.

Jody Steinberger, of West View, served in the Army and the Navy and worked at the Pentagon. He has an array of medical problems, including injuries to his feet and spine, diabetes and high blood pressure.

When he got his service dog, Nick, Mr. Steinberger’s blood pressure quickly dropped by 80 points, he said. Nick also alerts him when his blood sugar is too high or too low.

“Nick is more accurate than the doctors,” said Mr. Steinberger, who works in loan servicing at PNC Bank.

It costs $22,000 to $25,000 to train each dog for 18 months. Veterans pay nothing for the dogs, but neither does any U.S. government agency.

In the past four years, the local nonprofit Life Changing Service Dogs for Veterans has raised more than $1.5 million to fund 75 dogs. Twenty-seven area veterans have received dogs so far, said co-founder Tony Accamando, a Vietnam veteran.

Only 50 dogs a year can be placed, said Carol Borden, CEO of Guardian Angels Medical Service Dogs, which she founded 10 years ago. But plans are underway to speed up the process by building a training facility in Robinson, Washington County, that’s expected to cost $15 million to $20 million.

The land, 102 acres on Beagle Club Road, has been purchased for $6,000 per acre, with a mortgage from PNC, said Jack Wagner, a Vietnam veteran and former Pennsylvania auditor general who is heading up fundraising efforts.

Plans call for breaking ground later this year, but the construction completion date has not been determined. The general contractor is RBVetCo, which is owned and operated by Rocky Bleier, a veteran of the Vietnam War and of Super Bowl-winning Pittsburgh Steelers teams.

Keynote speakers on Tuesday were Jon Kolb, who played on four Super Bowl-winning Steelers teams, and Jim Rooney, grandson of Steelers founder Art Rooney.

“[Art Rooney] wanted it all to be about respect and human dignity,” his grandson said. “This project is about bringing dignity back to people who have given so much.”

The Steelers have a partnership with Mr. Accamando’s organization, Mr. Rooney said. The team funded the training of a dog named Ranger for a local veteran. A dog named Rooney is currently being trained.

Linda Wilson Fuoco: or 412-263-1953.

#servicedogs #veterans

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