Michael, PJ, and Oreo launched an organization over 30 years ago that continues to grow and serve the needs of veterans as one of the leading service dog training organizations in the country. Freedom Service Dogs of America is now in its 31st year of serving the community. Veteran’s Passport to Hope (VP2H) is a proud supporter of their work, particularly their Operation Freedom program.
The organization began with Michael and PJ Roche, who trained their rescued border collie, Oreo, to be a service dog for Michael after he was paralyzed in a car accident. They quickly realized there was a great need for trained service dogs and that rescue dogs were the perfect choice. As they started helping people with mobility issues, Freedom Service Dogs of America (FSD) expanded significantly.
One of the most relevant expansions for veterans was Operation Freedom, which helps veterans with traumatic brain injuries, PTSD, and mobility issues. President and CEO Michele Ostrander explains, “the need has become so great” with so many veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan in recent years. Ostrander also points out that half of their clients last year were veterans and, in fact, FSD has just hired a veterans outreach coordinator.
FSD is now actively recruiting veterans for a brand new program, Operation Full Circle. Started just last year, the program is designed for veterans to help train dogs they are matched with, so their bond is stronger and they are better prepared to work with the dog. The program also acts as a form of support group for veterans.
Ostander says the dogs have become a kind of “stepping stone” for veterans with PTSD who have challenges with getting out, even to go for a walk. The dogs reduce the veterans’ anxiety, acting as a battle buddy who is watching their back, so they can begin to re-engage with the community. The dogs are custom trained, so they can sense when the veteran is getting anxious and know the most effective ways to reduce that anxiety.
The change in the veterans’ lives is tremendous, Ostrander says. She has been with FSD for about two and a half years. With extensive non-profit experience behind her, she wanted to do something to assist veterans, understanding that they often deal with horrific realities.
FSD has about 250 volunteers and 34 staff members. Ostrander says she and FSD “really appreciate the support and enjoy working with VP2H,” pointing out that “cross promotion and cross support is something that VP2H really brings to organizations serving veterans.” That coordinating piece is extremely important, to enable organizations serving veterans to “create cooperation to work together.”