Training for war can breed a special kind of isolation.
Frank Griggs is well aware of the feelings of solitude and lingering trauma that can follow military service. As a Vietnam War veteran, Griggs has waged his own battle against the scars and sadness that can follow military deployment; he knows from firsthand experience that readjusting to civilian life can be a monumental effort.
"What often happens with post-traumatic stress disorder with veterans is that they isolate. They don't like being in public; they're easily triggered," Griggs said. "I know what it's like, because I've lived with it since 1969 … PTSD can happen to anybody."
Griggs found his own means to recovery through the kindness, companionship and unconditional love of one of human beings' oldest companions, and he wanted to share that same gift with his fellow service members. Griggs is the founder of the Veteran's Puppies for Life Organization, a nonprofit that connects veterans with service dogs and seeks to reintegrate those with PTSD into civilian society.
The organization seeks to spark joy and hope through companionship; specifically, their work relies on the unique bond that forms between a human and a dog.
"We use the puppy as the tool and the instrument to help our veterans see that there is a better life," Griggs said. "We train the puppy, but it's the dog that does most of the work. A puppy gives unconditional love, and it bonds with its veteran. It works."
Griggs isn't doing his work alone. For the past three years, the West Middle School community has worked closely with the organization, raising funds and resources to help connect local service members with puppies. Trained service dogs can run anywhere from $5,000 to $35,000, so the nonprofit's work serves an important means of connecting these animals with veterans who may not otherwise be able to afford them.
This year, West students, staff and community members worked together to raise about $7,000 for the initiative, which has roots in the school's "Gratitude Project" for veterans that kicked off 15 years ago. That money procured three puppies for three veterans, and on Jan. 14, the school held a special ceremony where those who had sacrificed so much for their country met their new best friends.
Two young English Golden Retrievers were placed into the loving arms of two Colorado veterans, who announced the names of Echo and Hondo. A third dog, a black Flat Coat Retriever named Eve, was a few weeks older than the pair. She'd come to Colorado after recovering from a broken leg in California; all healed up, she was just as ready to meet her new owner as her two fellow puppies.
Eve went to a veteran named Waldo, who explained to Griggs with no small amount of wonder, that she had the same name as his last service dog. When he gratefully took Eve into his arms in front of a group of West students, parents and staff, he couldn't hold back the tears.
"We want to make sure that veterans have the ability to get back into life again," said Griggs, who had to hold back his own emotional response. "They put their lives on the line for us," he added. He also pointed out that the school raised more this year than any other year since kicking off the partnership. "It amazes me. These children are our future, and they recognize that there are people who are hurting in the world. They understand that there is an issue."
Andy Burns and Sarah Whitley, eighth-grade social studies teachers at West, have played a key role in organizing the school's push to properly recognize and give back to local veterans. Burns told the assembled crowd that "helping vets is a passion of ours," and spoke about how lucky he was to be in a community that so valued the work to improve lives and create joy.
Those efforts had an immediate effect on Dustin Creasy, a veteran who served from 2006 to 2012 and who sported a huge smile as he held his new friend, Echo, in his arms. Surrounded by his wife, Gina, and his infant son Patrick, Creasy explained that the young Golden Retriever was his first service animal.
"I know he's going to change our lives for the better," Creasy said. "We started looking all over a few years ago … By grace and good luck, we found Frank's organization. That changed the whole game for me. Being here and meeting Echo has exceeded all of my expectations.
"Seeing the kids, the puppies and knowing all the hard work they've done, it's beyond my expectations," he added. "It's nice to see the younger generation get a glimpse of what we're going through and what we need. It's indescribable; thank you from the bottom of my heart."