Six veterans and their newly acquainted service dogs took to the skies Tuesday morning at the Southern Illinois Airport.
Students and faculty of the SIUC aviation flight program took the pairs up in the air as they learned to work together as part of the This Able Veteran’s program, which trains service dogs for more than a year and matches them to veterans who live with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder or Traumatic Brain Injury.
The veterans are spending the first two weeks of August in Carbondale to get acquainted with their canine companions with the help of trainers from This Able Veteran.
Since several veterans came from outside the region and will fly as far home as Arizona and California with their dogs, the exercise helped the duos become more comfortable while flying, said Behesha Doan, president and training director of This Able Veteran.
Doan said it is important that the service dogs and veterans acclimate each other once they are matched. She said the flights also help the duos work through new situations, which is something they will encounter in their daily lives.
Jason Brown, a retired U.S. Army sergeant who served two tours in Iraq, and Tonka, a yellow Labrador, made an initial flight earlier this month. Brown, of Murphysboro, learned about This Able Veteran’s program from his case manager at the Marion VA Medical Center.
After being matched, the two went through several months of service training and Tonka went to live with Brown, his wife and young daughter in April.
He said the flights allowed for valuable experience, and it will be easier for him to fly somewhere if he ever needs or wants to in the future.
Brown said it’s also good to work with the service dogs through difficult situations such as the first flight a dog and its new owner take together.
“There are always going to be new things that we’ve never done before,” Brown said. “If you can work them through being on an airplane or stressful situations, you can work them through other stressful things because it builds confidence.”
Jeff Hayes, a senior lecturer in the aviation flight department and a flight instructor, worked with a certified student to provide the flights for the exercise as they took the planes about 5,500 feet above ground and returned.
Hayes, who is also part of an Illinois Air National Guard Unit out of Scott Air Force Base, said students such as Courtney Copping, the certified aviation management graduate who piloted with Hayes Tuesday, have the opportunity to gain experience through the cooperation with organizations.
He said the students and faculty enjoy cooperating for causes that organizations like This Able Veteran provide.
“We appreciate what the veterans have done and it’s a great opportunity to give back to them in whatever way we can,” Hayes said.
Brown said there are numerous benefits to having a service dog. He said an important one is Tonka’s ability to help him relax because it gives him something else to focus on.
“I get stressed out a lot and nothing really takes that away,” Brown said. “The dog does that for me.”