This post is part of an ongoing series on Shine presented by Rally.org, the crowdfunding site for social good. Rally explores thousands of user stories to find and share with you their most inspiring examples of people helping people.
On September 1, 2006, Terrance McGlade's Marine battalion got hit by a roadside bomb in Ramadi, Iraq. He sustained shrapnel wounds and in the years since the attack, he's lived with severe depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, and a mild traumatic brain injury.
Never could he have imagined that, after getting his medical discharge in May 2012, he'd end up throwing out a ceremonial first pitch for the Cincinnati Reds and dropping the puck on the Detroit Red Wings' home ice.
Since last fall McGlade has been able to join in public events big and small with the help of a mutt named Major. Before they met, Major himself was in dire straits: He spent two years in the home of a hoarder without any outdoor activity or human affection, living in filth on top of his own urine and feces. In due time Stiggy's Dogs came to his, and to McGlade's, rescue.
Stiggy's Dogs, a non-profit in Howell, Mich., trains shelter dogs to become psychiatric service animals for veterans who need help navigating their post-combat lives. Jennifer Petre founded the organization in honor of her nephew, Ben "Doc Stiggy" Castiglione, an ardent lover of dogs and a Navy hospital corpsman responsible for the physical and emotional health of the units for whom he served. He died in 2009 when an improvised explosive device hit his platoon in Afghanistan's Helmand province.
Most of the Stiggy's staff came to this work from the world of animal rescue and advocacy, and through those connections, they have formed partnerships with rescue organizations throughout Michigan and across the border into Ohio. This commitment to shelter dogs, and to serving the men and women who serve our country, is spelled out right in the Stiggy's mission: "Rescuing One to Rescue Another."
Each week the staff fields dozens of emails from vets asking how to qualify for a service dog, but only about 10 veterans a month formally apply to participate in the training program. Among other documents, a veteran must provide paperwork showing he or she has been medically discharged, along with a physician's statement verifying the PTSD or TBI and explaining why a service animal would be beneficial. (Stiggy's does not offer dogs or training to active-duty personnel.)
The veteran also goes through an interview, answering questions about the household: Are there small children? Is there a fenced-in yard? Do you live in an apartment or a house? And Stiggy's asks what the veteran hopes to get out of the training program.
"It's kind of like an arranged marriage," said Donna Fournier, the director of training for Stiggy's. "Some of our veterans haven't left their houses in years, so one of the things we ask them is, 'What is something you've always attempted to do but haven't been able to since you left the military?' Maybe it's going to concerts or sporting events-somewhere with large crowds. Or going to see fireworks," movies, or other entertainment featuring explosions.
Veterans' needs vary greatly, depending on what may have caused their PTSD or what could trigger a negative reaction. A veteran might want her dog to do a perimeter search, where it will search a home or room to let the veteran know that it's safe to enter. Dogs can also learn to remind vets to take their medication or locate certain people if the vet is in distress.
Major, McGlade's three-year-old Labrador retriever-pit bull mix, is trained to check all the windows and doors at home to make sure they're shut and locked for the night and turn the lights out. He'll perform a "watch my back" if they're standing in line in a crowded place, keeping an eye out behind McGlade to maintain a comfortable distance from other people.
"And if I start getting anxious, he'll do a very politely lean into me and start bugging me until I pet him," said McGlade, laughing.
Late last summer their friendship got off to a rocky start, at least for Major. After spending his puppy years living with a hoarder, he didn't trust people, especially men. McGlade had already met another service dog through the Stiggy's training program that seemed more prepared and eager to work, but he decided he would pay attention to the "gut feeling" he had about Major and devote himself to his new companion.
"As soon as I met Major, I fell in love and I was going to do everything possible to make it work," McGlade said.
"I knew if I put everything I had into it, even though we only had a few weeks of training before school started, that it was going to work out."
With Major in tow McGlade attended Ohio University his freshman year. They both had a tough time adjusting to the large college environment, sitting in lecture halls surrounded by hundreds of students. The amount of people seemed to make the dog just as uncomfortable as his handler, though Major eventually learned how to calm himself down enough to sooth McGlade.
The former Marine corporal knew a service dog would help him better manage his anxiety and depression and perform daily tasks like running errands and going to class. Yet he never anticipated the dramatic life improvements he's experienced.
"I didn't think having this dog would help me as much as it has," McGlade explained. "I didn't think I would be living as active of a lifestyle as I am now."
Like dropping the ceremonial puck at a fundraising match between the Red Wings and their former Detroit teammates. And participating in outings with the Wounded Warrior Project, which arranged the pre-game pitch at the Cincinnati Reds' stadium. McGlade jumped at the chance to throw one out from the pitcher's mound and didn't really do much to prepare for his major-league debut.
"I just prayed that the ball got across the plate, more than anything," McGlade said. "Home plate doesn't look as far as it really is until you get out there."
McGlade and his dog have been living and working together for almost a year. For his sophomore year he decided to transfer to a much smaller school, Zane State College outside of Columbus, Ohio, where he's planning to major in human resources management. He volunteers with a local Boy Scout troop in his free time (he earned his Eagle Scout rank in 2001). In early September he'll join his local Wounded Warriors Project chapter for a five-day nature and team-building retreat.
The ex-Marine also is getting ready to commemorate what he calls his Alive Day, on Sept. 1.
"Seven years ago on that day I got attacked by a roadside bomb," McGlade said. "Remembering the day is my way of remembering that it's my second chance at life."
Stiggy's Dogs is preparing to give another group of dogs and vets a second chance at life, too. The organization will begin training 20 pairs pairs of dogs and veterans in the next month, the largest group of trainees they've had.
Check out the stories behind these hardworking dogs and learn how you can help them improve the lives of veterans at rally.org/stiggysdogs.