FINDLEY TOWNSHIP – Dustin Schneider lost more than just his military career when he was wounded during his fifth tour of duty in the Middle East.
He also lost his support group, or as he puts it, his “village” of like-minded individuals who understand what it means to be a U.S. service member.
For Schneider, the transition back to civilian life was excruciating. The Army veteran and Mount Washington, Pa., native turned to prescription medication, and often alcohol, to help cope. He was also haunted by night terrors as a result of post traumatic stress disorder caused in part by a traumatic brain injury.
But now, instead of waking up with with the task of weathering a storm of anxiety and depression, Schneider wakes up with a ball in his hand. And his hazel-eyed German shepherd, Spangle, waiting patiently for his feet to hit the floor.
“It’s like she’s saying, ‘OK, let’s start this day off right,’” Schneider said.
Schneider and Spangle were guests of honor at the State Correctional Institution at Mercer’s Veteran Service Unit on Thursday, when state and prison officials announced an official partnership between SCI Mercer and Guardian Angels Medical Service Dogs Inc. – an organization based in Williston, Fla. that trains and donates service dogs to veterans and others suffering from myriad conditions including PTSD, traumatic brain injury symptoms, seizures and mobility issues.
The partnership, championed by state Sen. Michele Brooks, will allow for a select number of inmates housed in the Veterans Service Unit to help raise and train service dogs like Spangle from the time they are five months old until the dogs are 2 years old and ready to be donated to a Pennsylvania veteran.
The program is the first of its kind to be implemented in a U.S. prison.
The Veterans Service Unit is a special housing area reserved for former military servicemen within SCI Mercer where they can learn necessary skills to succeed in life after prison. Pennsylvania Secretary of Corrections John Wetzel said the new program is another step toward doing just that.
“The most dangerous prison in the world is right up here,” Wetzel said, tapping his index finger against his forehead. “This program will help unlock that prison.”
Inmates from throughout the veterans unit gathered in the cellblock to hear remarks from guest speakers from Sen. Brooks to former Pittsburgh Steeler and military veteran Rocky Bleier.
But the front row of the event was reserved for the “trainers in training,” who recently took a test to determine whether they are officially ready for the first four dogs to arrive for training on Oct. 4.
“They are nervous because they don’t know what (score) they got yet,” Guardian Angels chief executive officer Carol Borden said. “But I’m proud to announce that each on of them got a 95 percent or above.”
After the event, Terrance, an inmate and student in the program, scoffed at the idea he and his classmates would score anything less than A-plus work.
“Oh, confidence is everything,” he said. “I knew we were going to pass.”
Borden said the training the inmates receive is college accredited and VA approved, with college credits from Slippery Rock University.
“It’s been very intense,” Jon, another SCI Mercer student said. “It’s basically like working a nine to five, for the most part.”
Guardian Angel staff member Joanne Warner said the dogs will be in the prison with their trainers for 24 hours a day until they are ready to be placed with a veteran. She said prison life will be an adjustment for the dogs as they transition from a farm in Florida to lockup at SCI Mercer, but much like their trainers, prison life will help prepare the dogs for their jobs on the outside.
“Going to the infirmary with patients will get them used to lying in a hospital bed, which is something they will have to do with a lot of veterans they are paired with,” she said. “And heading to commissary – that’s almost like going to the post office.”
Warner said that at least some training will be required for the the rest of the prisoners in the unit so they know how best to interact with the animals on a day-to-day basis. But she added that the dogs will be good therapy for the entire population.
“What’s better than something that gives you unconditional love in a prison setting?” she said.
The ultimate goal of the program, echoed by each speaker in attendance Thursday, is to reduce the alarmingly high suicide rate among veterans to zero. Brig. Gen. Mark Schindler, a representative for the state Department of Military and Veterans Affairs, said about 22 veterans commit suicide each day.
“Over the last 32 years, I’ve seen how real it is among veterans,” he said. “It destroys careers, families and individuals.”
Borden said, at least among participants in the Guardian Angel program, that goal has so far been accomplished. The Guardian Angel CEO said more than 300 veterans have been assigned service dogs in 23 states, and there have been no suicides.
“This is just another way of helping even more veterans,” she said. “And (the trainers) are a part of saving someone’s life.”
But the inmates involved are interested in more than just survival. Their goal is to see fellow veterans, including themselves, flourish in life after prison or combat.
“There are a lot of preconceived notions about us,” Charles, an SCI Mercer student said. “We get a chance to give back, and an opportunity in the future to succeed.”
Schneider, with Spangle napping at his feet, said he was proud to see his fellow veterans put in the time and effort necessary to help their brothers.
“We’re a unified front,” he said. “We’re adding more faces and more people to the village.”