Healing our Heroes

Piper Hill’s mission is to give veterans hope

by Clay Neely - clay@newnan.com

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Photo by Clay Neely

Healing4Heroes turns rescue dogs into service dogs for veterans. From left are Christy Brown, volunteer John DiNucci and founder Piper Hill.


(First in series - Mental Health: The Hidden Story)

"I was mad at the world,” recalled retired Army officer Piper Hill.

“And I just know that if Valentine hadn’t been there for me, I wouldn’t have made it,” Hill added.

Valentine, an 18-year-old American Bulldog, lies at Hill’s feet in her home in Peachtree City. Hill was originally placed on TDRL (Temporary Disability Retired List) for seven years while serving in the Army, but for the duration of her battle, Valentine never left her side.

Hill originally enlisted in the Army in 1990, became an officer in 1996 and then retired in 2009. After witnessing what soldiers were battling upon returning home, she decided that since she couldn’t fight their battles for them, she would be an advocate.

“I wanted to give each of them their very own Valentine,” she said.

In 2010, Hill founded “Healing4Heroes,” a non-profit organization which is dedicated to assisting military service members and veterans lead healthy, productive lives with the assistance of a trained service dog.

The organization utilizes unwanted shelter dogs by transforming them into trained service companions.

Hill recalled the earliest days of the organization. Raising money was and still continues to be an annual obstacle for the organization.

“The first year was painful,” said Hill. “There was no funding or volunteers and my first class was made up entirely of Marines. They’re a little bit crazy but we like ‘em like that,” laughed Hill.

The Wounded Warrior Project will put soldiers in contact with the group, but they do not provide financial assistance, according to Hill.

While service dogs are free of charge to the veteran, the cost of obtaining and training comes out to around $5,000 per dog.

“A couple of the soldiers got sponsored by the Semper Fi Fund. In that first year, we had nine veterans that finished the program and our size has doubled every year until last year,” said Hill.

“Finances aside, it’s hard training a dog,” said Hill. “You have to work every day to maintain its skills. I just can’t give a soldier a trained dog, ready to go. Each individual has their own set of triggers that are unique.”

The veterans will train with Healing4Heroes for one week then return home with their dog for four months. After that, they must return and complete a seven minute, error-free “test out.”

“In the Army, we call it ‘train the trainer,’ which is perfectly acceptable. The individuals that make it through the program have a good support system at home. They keep logs of everything they do and that all counts as time for their timesheet,” said Hill. The veterans will log 280 hours of training by the end of their five months. The service dog must complete the ‘Canine Good Citizen’ test, an American Kennel Club program that promotes responsible dog ownership and encourages the training of well-mannered dogs.

“We want the dog to be able to walk in and out of places without being spooked. Getting out of the car politely. Day to day things,” said Hill.

However, Hill believes that the program is not a magic pill.

“You have to want to get better,” she said.

“I think it all depends on the support system that the individual gets. If they have someone at home who cares about them and is pushing and supporting them, that really helps them,” said Hill.

Christy Brown, Hill’s assistant at Healing4Heroes, has witnessed firsthand the power of a service dog.

Brown’s husband, Todd, was originally a member of the 82nd Airborne. After battling through what doctors had initially diagnosed as depression, Todd visited the VA where it was determined that he was, in fact, suffering with PTSD.

“The medication helped some, but until he got Buddy and Abby, his anxiety kept him from leaving the house,” recalled Brown.

“He felt that because he didn’t go to war, he thought that his issues weren’t as important as those who did.” Todd now has two dogs that have helped him slowly reclaim his quality of life.

According to Brown, Abby is the “daytime, active dog” while Buddy is the “I take care of daddy at home dog” who will wake Todd from nightmares and who never leaves his side.

Both dogs were rescues from Coweta County.

Brown believed so much in the program that she ultimately quit her full-time job to help Hill.

“I was miserable at my old job and I wanted to make a difference,” recalled Brown. “Piper called me the day I quit, asking if I could help her out with the program.”

Brown took a significant pay cut to help Hill, going from a $30-an-hour job all the way down to minimum wage. She has no regrets.

“I’ve seen what a service dog can do,” said Brown. “If I can help another family, it’s all worthwhile. My kids are beginning to have their daddy back and for so long they didn't have one. He’s a better father and husband now because of the dogs.”

“It’s amazing,” said Brown. “They can sense when he’s not doing too good and something is wrong. They’re both right next to him and they won’t leave him alone until he calms down. When his anxiety starts up, Abby jumps right on his lap and calms him down,” said Brown.

Hill stresses that PTSD isn’t strictly for veterans of wars.

“We deal with a ton of survivors’ guilt,” said Hill. “One of my vets is from Vietnam but was never directly in the war. He was enlisted in SERE (Search, Evasion, Resistance and Escape) school where they torture you for two months. They buried him in a hole with just his head sticking out, letting ants bite him. He still felt guilty that he didn’t go to war.”

Since forming Healing4Heroes, Hill’s organization has helped veterans train dogs from all across the country and even as far away as from Japan.

Their primary, preferred dog of choice for soldiers is a Pit-mix.

“They make fantastic service dogs,” said Hill. “They just want to do whatever you want them to do. We also love a Lab-mix. It all depends on what the individual needs.”

“For instance, we had a really large soldier who wound up needing an Akita-Lab mix. His name was Remington and was about 115 pounds. He was like a big ol’ bear,” grinned Hill.

According to Hill, 90 percent of their service dogs are rescues.

The organization has been known to travel in order to assist with training.

“It’s more expensive but we’ll go wherever we’re needed. It all comes down to fundraising,” said Hill.

Fundraising is getting harder for the group. With testimonials of the group’s success beginning to surface, Wounded Warrior is sending more veterans Hill’s way.

“When it jumped from 12 students to 22 students at a cost of $5,000 each, it can get pretty overwhelming but we manage to get the money somehow,” said Hill. “Motorcycle rides used to be a good way to raise funds, but our last two were a lot of work for very little return. It’s getting harder to come up with the money and it’s requiring us to have to think outside of the box a little more.

However, the group’s annual Mardi Gras ball is its biggest fundraiser.

“But with the storm, we’ve only managed to sell 30 tickets and I need to sell 90,” said Hill.

“I wish I could launch more classes. In a perfect world, I could help 24 vets a month with one trainer. That’s 24 vets that might not commit suicide. I get a med list from all those involved and by the end of the year 90 percent come off all their meds, not only the psych but also the pain meds. For the VA to say that psychiatric service dogs don’t help, they’re full of bologna.

“The VA numbers are 22 suicides a day and those are just the stats on the veterans which they track. There are many veterans out there, much like me, who do not go to the VA,” said Hill. “Personally, I think the numbers are higher than their reports.”

However, no matter what obstacles the group may face, Hill vows to keep on fighting.

“My soldiers would have done anything for me when I was in command,” recalled Hill. “This my opportunity to give back to those service members who would have done anything for me as their leader. There is no reason even one soldier should ever commit suicide.”

 * * *

(The Healing4Heroes Third Annual Mardi Gras Rendezvous Ball will be held Saturday, Feb. 22 at the Flat Creek Country Club. The event will feature a traditional Cajun buffet with gumbo, dirty rice, blackened chicken and bread pudding. The event will also feature festive music, a champagne toast, a cash bar, a silent auction and other festive Mardi Gras merriment. For any questions, please contact Healing4Heroes1@gmail.com .)

***

SERIES TO EXPLORE WIDE RANGE OF ISSUES

Today, The Newnan Times-Herald begins a series of stories looking at mental health issues in our county.

The issue has been in the news frequently, including how local officials are appealing the denial of a Certificate of Need for a behavioral hospital in Newnan, and a study by Piedmont Newnan Hospital that showed nearly 30 percent of local high school students feel sad or hopeless.

The same study showed 8 percent of local high-schoolers have contemplated committing suicide. Throughout Coweta County, the role of mental health in various aspects of life — and the need for mental health services — is apparent.

Throughout 2013, Coweta County adults will have a reported 3.7 poor mental health days each month, according to the University of Wisconsin’s County Health Rankings. This is higher than both state (3.4) and national (2.3) averages. Over the last five years, mental and behavioral disorders were the seventh leading cause of emergency department visits, in aggregate, and this does not include the ramifications of violent outbursts, such as assault.

In light of those issues, a series of occasional stories will appear in the Times-Herald starting today with the article on a Fayette County woman who is raising funds to provide companion dogs for veterans suffering with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Some of the dogs were rescues from Coweta County.

Among other upcoming stories already planned are:

• Sheriff Mike Yeager on how his staff is involved in taking individuals who are committed to the state hospital in Columbus.

• The Coweta County School System’s pro-active approach to a wide range of mental health issues.

• Publicly funded mental health facilities and what they provide.

• The potential economic impact of a behavioral hospital.

• Coweta’s probate court and its role with regard to mental illness.

Additional topics may be explored in future weeks and months as issues arise.



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