Back from the brink

Photo ProvidedGeorge, who is part wolfhound, has made a big difference in Sean Conner's life.

DANVILLE — Emily Klose of Champaign didn’t plan on attending her 40th high school reunion last fall. But a friend told her: “Just go and expect something great to happen.”

She did — and that simple act sent off a chain reaction from California to Danville, changing the life of an area veteran.

“It was serendipitous,” Klose said. “It’s a ridiculous and crazy story.”

Thanks to her talking about Mission K9 Warrior, classmate Carl Chow made a donation of $5,000 — which was matched by his employer — to buy and train a service dog. That dog went to Sean Conner, a Marine who suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder.

“I think the dog pulled Sean back from the brink,” Klose said.

Conner, 36, was in Operation Phantom Fury, which was the major push for the insurgent stronghold of Fallujah. To date, it was the bloodiest battle of the Iraq War, he said.

Having George — a part wolfhound — by his side has made a big difference.

“My quality of life has increased drastically because of all the care and passion that everyone involved devotes to this program,” he said.

Mission K9 Warrior is administered by the Georgetown American Legion Dornblaser Post 203. Eight dogs have been paired with veterans since service officer David Hughes founded the program in 2017.

The name of the program is trademarked and unique among American Legions across the country.

KLOSE, CHOW ENCOUNTER

The tragedy of veterans with PTSD committing suicide hits home for Klose. Her husband, Jim Washburn, a Vietnam veteran who was in the Air Force, took his life on Sept. 26, 2012.

After her husband died, Klose wondered what she could do to honor him, and learned about Mission K9 Warrior.

Because her husband was a big dog lover, she and her family launched the Jim Washburn Living Legacy Service Dog Fund in 2017. Conner is the second recipient of a dog through that fund.

Last September, Klose decided to attend her Rich Central High School reunion in Olympia Fields. Also attending was Chow, a mechanical engineer with Hewlett-Packard labs in California. The two also had attended the University of Illinois, but Klose said they hadn’t seen each other in 30 years.

Klose told him about her husband’s death and gave him an article to read about Mission K9 Warrior.

Upon his return to Fremont, Calif. he and wife, JoAnn, decided to make a $5,000 donation toward a service dog. He also took advantage of Hewlett-Packard’s plan to match an employee’s contribution to a charity up to $5,000. That added up to $10,000, which is the cost to find, buy, train and maintain one service dog.

It took a while for the funds to go through, Klose said, adding, “It was a five-month odyssey to get the matching funds.” They had to go through American Legion Charities, Inc., and the deal was finalized in February.

Chow, who likes to stay in the background, said, “I’m glad to help out. If this motivates someone else to help …”

Chow had researched Mission K9 Warrior, and decided it was a worthy cause, and is pleased that the program is doing so well. He’s also a dog lover, and has an 11-year-old mixed breed.

CONNER’S STORY

Conner received his dog, George, during a graduation ceremony in April at Paw-a-day Inn K9 Suites in Tilton. Owner Tony Piatt trains dogs through his Midwest Professional Canine Services.

A native of Tuscola, Conner spent four years (2001-05) in the infantry with the Marine Corps and was deployed to Iraq.

After service, he returned to Tuscola and attended college. Since graduating in 2008, he has struggled to maintain steady employment, and is constantly haunted by PTSD issues.

A few years ago, Conner adopted a dog who had been abused.

“We were inseparable. We would both lay awake at night and suffered from nightmares,” he recalled. “She quickly became my battle buddy, but I didn't know how much she helped me until she became ill herself.

“After many veterinary visits and referrals, she was diagnosed with Cushing's Disease and all I could do was watch as another best friend died.”

After a time, he decided to look into the process of getting a service dog. The only places he could find were in Chicago or southern Illinois.

By then, he had secured employment with the Veterans of Foreign Wars as an assistant department service officer.

“Basically, I work with and help veterans, many of whom share similar experiences with me,” he said.

Conner then heard a radio commercial requesting donations to a fund that helps veterans. That month, funds were going to the Georgetown American Legion and Mission K9 Warrior.

Conner found an application on the website, and was called to an interview within two days. At the time, there was a dog in training and Conner was told he would be paired with the dog when he reached a certain point in his training.

“I met with the trainer (Carolyn Daniel) and we talked about my triggers, or what causes me to react adversely,” he said. “This was difficult for me to discuss, but necessary, as she needed to teach the dog what to react to.”

After meeting with Daniel a few times, Conner got to meet George.

CARING CANINE

“George is a very loving and caring dog. Training with George seemed natural from the beginning. We got along very well,” he said.

“After the training was complete between George and myself, I got to take him home and he has been by my side most of the time since then.”

When they are in crowded areas, George pushes up against Conner as if to say, "It's OK."

“When I'm at home and if I can sleep, he wakes me up when I have nightmares.”

In public, Conner has had some issues with people asking if he's actually a service dog.

“I believe this is because most people do not know the difference between service dogs, comfort dogs and therapy dogs,” he said. “They are all extremely different and George is an ADA-recognized service dog, able to go almost anywhere. He is a very well-behaved, and very well-trained animal.

“I have a huge respect for the entire program and the team that Dave Hughes has brought together, between the American Legion, Mission K9 Warrior and Midwest Professional K9 Services.”

Conner said he has passed out David Hughes’ business card to many veterans with similar backgrounds.

Conner also said, “I want to give a special thank you to the people that donated to make this possible, especially (Klose) who donated in honor of her late husband.”

GROWING PROBLEM

David Hughes, service officer with Post 203 and a Coast Guard veteran, founded Mission K9 Warrior in 2017 when he learned the average rate of suicide among veterans nationally is about 22 a day.

“I think there’s a great need out there,” Hughes said. A lot of veterans are troubled with PTSD, but they think it makes them appear weak to admit it.

“Eventually, it can eat away at you,” he said, adding he hopes veterans take advantage of programs, such as at the VA, to get the help they need.

The cost of buying and training a service dog has gone up to $10,000 from $7,500. That’s still a discount, Hughes said, as it can cost up to $40,000 in some places for boarding, training, veterinary care and other services.

As for the veterans who have received the dogs, Hughes said, “Everybody seems to be doing well. The dogs have been a real blessing for them.”

FYI

• To support the service dog project, send checks to the American Legion Post 203, 106 E. West, Georgetown, IL 61846. Make checks payable to the Legion and make a note that the donation is for service dogs.

• You also may donate and fill out an application at www.amlegion203il.org.

• For more information, email David Hughes at hughes_davi@yahoo.com or check out the Georgetown Legion's Facebook page.

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