Richard Ruelas: Every month we feature an Arizona organization working to help better the community in our giving and leading segment. Tonight, a week before Veteran's day, the focus is on returning soldiers. Arizona is home to more than half a million Veterans. They include 150,000 who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, many of them face multiple deployments. Transitioning from military to civilian life can be difficult, especially for those Veterans dealing with medical issues. Producer Christina Estes and photographer Steve Aron show us how an Arizona veterinarian came up with a plan to help veterans.
Christina Estes: 16-month-old Lucky is like most puppies.
Jason Bedore: He's full of energy.
Christina Estes: And he loves toys stuffed with peanut butter.
Jason Bedore: Good boy.
Christina Estes: It's never easy to separate a dog from his treat but in Lucky's case --
Jason Bedore: Once you put on the vest and the collar, he knows he's going to work.
Christina Estes: Work means protecting a man who spent a decade protecting others.
Jason Bedore: I did five tours to Iraq. In 2007, I was hit with an improvised explosive device, IED, and sustained injuries, from head injuries to, to knee injuries.
Christina Estes: After years of surgeries and therapy, staff sergeant Jason Bedore medically retired.
Jason Bedore: I had a disconnect, I didn't know what to do.
Christina Estes: A bad knee was the most visible scar, while the post-traumatic stress and brain injuries stayed mostly hidden, except from Jason’s family.
Jason Bedore: I always had to have my wife with me. I don't go to the grocery store. I don't go -- I hate traffic, so I take the same routes that I know won't have traffic.
Christina Estes: Jason was fortunate his wife understood better than most. She also serve in Iraq; that's where they met.
Jason Bedore: My wife does a lot, spends a lot of her time taking care of me, so it's like she's taking care of two kids, my daughter and myself.
Christina Estes: Until Lucky came along. Someone discovered the lab mix in a dumpster and took him to a shelter where Jason adopted him.
Jason Bedore: Through Soldier's Best Friend, he was able to help me, I guess, come out of my shell.
Christina Estes: Soldier's best friend is a nonprofit that pairs veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder or traumatic brain injuries with dogs to be trained as service or therapeutic companion animals. Jason and Lucky are halfway through the program. They meet with a professional trainer once a week and join other veterans and dogs for public outings, visits to stores, restaurants, and the airport. Lucky's biggest job is to help calm Jason. Especially during nightmares.
Jason Bedore: He's there so I know that it's ok. If I wake up from a dream, or if I'm acting out the dream, he'll wake me up. He'll interrupt me, whether it's with his, his me wanting to pet him or him rubbing his body against me. It brings comfort.
Mac Pieper: He's not going anywhere, unless I'm going with him.
Christina Estes: After months of training, former army sergeant Mac Pieper and his dog, Cal, recently graduated from the program.
Mac Pieper: It makes me really happy and proud because I was able to teach him how to do it and make him understand that he needed to do it. It makes me feel safe because he's a good judge of character.
Christina Estes: While serving three tours in Iraq, Mac endured multiple traumatic brain injuries. He was also diagnosed with PTSD. And then just four months after leaving the military, Mac was hit while riding his motorcycle. The driver took off leaving his bleeding, broken body on the street, and stealing much of his eyesight.
Mac Pieper: It's called bitemporal peripheral vision loss. Basically, it means that on my right eye, I can't see anything from, basically, the middle of my eye out. And on the left side, the same thing, but from the left side.
Christina Estes: The brain injuries make it hard for mac to concentrate and recall things.
Mac Pieper: I will ask my fiancée what's going on for today. And she will tell me. And in five minutes later I will be like, what are we doing today? Because I don't remember it. I don't remember asking her.
Christina Estes: And then, there are the angry outbursts.
Mac Pieper: After my accident, they got to the point where I would roll down the window and scream at people that were not driving the way that I thought that they should be. Or, you know, walking down the middle of the parking lot when we are trying to drive through the parking lot. And things like that. And, I actually, I had to have Krista explain to me, we live in a state where people carry guns. And they might not just shoot me, they might shoot her, too. And that kind of -- that really made me want to get some help and make myself better.
Christina Estes: Cal is always there to calm Mac and to watch his back.
Mac Pieper: We'll stop somewhere. At the grocery store. I will be looking at a shelf or something like that. And he'll automatically turn and face back and be watching the people walking by. And making sure that people are not coming up behind me and doing anything crazy.
Christina Estes: The idea for soldier's best friend came from veterinarian John Burnham.
John Burnham: I wanted to help the military. And I also wanted to help with our overpopulation of pets.
Christina Estes: About half the dogs come from shelters and rescue groups. The program has graduated more than 50 pairs, but it's touched many more lives.
John Burnham: Just the other night we had a graduation, and I had a mother that has been the caretaker of this Veteran, and, and she put her arms around me and hugged me and thanked me because now she can sleep in because her daughter can take her kids to school now. To where before, mom always had to do that because the daughter was not willing to leave home. So, those are the kind of stories we hear on a regular basis.
Mac Pieper: Let's go. Come on. If it wasn't for him, I don't know that, that I would not have been shot at already.
Jason Bedore: Good boy. I just -- I didn't know how to thank him. He's -- it's amazing.
Christina Estes: Sounds like soldiers' best friend has more than one Lucky guy.
Jason Bedore: Yeah.
Richard Ruelas: Soldiers' best friend offers training in Phoenix, Prescott, Tucson and Sierra Vista. Thanks to volunteers and donations, there is no cost to the veterans. For more information, visit soldiersbestfriend.org. That's all for this edition of "Arizona Horizon." Thank you for joining us. See tomorrow night.