In April, Joe Trainor said he was on his way to becoming a statistic—veterans of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq that take their own lives. After a break-up with his girlfriend, Trainor said he then lost one of the only things that had helped him cope with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, a brain injury and social anxiety that followed him home from war: His dog.
"Simply to pick up that dog, and simply express your thoughts and feelings as a veteran, (and) that dog looks back at you and says 'I don't know what you're saying, but I love you no matter what,' " said Trainor, who was among the very first American troops on the ground in Afghanistan in October 2001. As a member of the Army Rangers Special Operations, Trainor can't talk about what he did and what he saw while was in Afghanistan. But now, he's part of a group focused on training canine companions for veterans like himself.
14DDV, a non-profit organization led by Chicago dog trainer Toriano Sanzone, was formed last month with one mission: Take 14-dogs facing euthanasia, train them in 14-days and give them to 14 veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan as a means to help them cope with their transition back to life outside the war.
Since June 27, Sanzone has "occupied" a parking lot in front of Good News Community Church in Humboldt Park, setting up a military-style camp where he and the veterans have been training the dogs since July 1. From dawn until nightfall, the pairs spend their time doing cardio, obedience training and even yoga exercises to get acquainted with one another. When the day is over, the group retires to tents where they sleep outside.
"The relationship is so synergistic, you have two living entities that need each other, they feed off each other," Sanzone said. At the end of the training, the dogs will undergo a Canine Citizenship Test recognized by the American Kennel Club, which determines they are ready to be reintroduced into the public. Sanzone said many of the pit bulls previously faced verbal and physical abuse.
Trainor said the several dogs he's shared with ex-girlfriends have been a helpful coping mechanism for issues like PTSD since he's returned to civilian life. He's lost a few of those companions, but his new dog, an American Bulldog named Diesel that faced being put in a shelter, will soon be all his own.
"With having a dog, you can't just lock yourself in the house," he said, adding that isolation is a common problem many returning veterans face. He said he hopes to educate other vets about programs like 14DDV and how they can be a steppingstone to a normal life.
Beyond giving veterans a companion, Sanzone said he hopes the program brings together communities. He said he wants to continue to "occupy" different spaces in neighborhoods typically associated with violence to rally the community together.
"We could have done this anywhere, but we did it right in the 'hood, because the 'hood needs to see good, positive things happen," he said. Sanzone's already seen a difference. A few days into the training, he said a young man with an electronic monitoring bracelet walked over from a nearby porch. He asked if he could get a rake to help the group clean up.
But Sanzone said continuing the program is going to take donations. He said he has contributed a considerable amount of his own wealth into the program, and is looking to raise about $500,000 to pay for all the costs associated with the program, everything from covering six months of food for the adopted dogs to covering the costs associated with feeding everyone for the day.
"There's so much work to do, there's so many different moving parts," he said. "We all have dumped everything we have personally. There's nothing left. But we want to do this again. We need donations to keep this thing going, we want to create a machine."
The 14 days of training conclude Saturday at the church, where the 14 veterans will be presented with their new therapy dogs. Secretary Jesse White and Ald. Walter Burnett Jr. (27th Ward), are expected to be in attendance.
For information, go to http://14ddv.com/.