Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Long Island schoolchildren learn about disabled vet's service dog

From Newsday:

Joe Worley (pictured) rolled his bright orange wheelchair into the packed schoolyard of the Jackson Avenue School in Mineola, where dozens of elementary schoolchildren, parents and invited veterans were gathered Nov. 10.

But for that first moment, all eyes were on Worley's companion, Benjamin (pictured).

"Look at the dog!" a girl cried out, pointing at the golden retriever wearing a vest and sitting quietly by the wheelchair.

For Worley, 28, a disabled veteran from Douglasville, Ga., Benjamin is more than a service dog - he is his best friend and a way to teach young children about the sacrifices soldiers make.

"He helps me out with all sorts of stuff," Worley told the group. He later demonstrated Benjamin's retrieval skills with his wallet, and showed how he uses the dog as a brace when he gets in or out of his wheelchair.

The unconditional emotional support he receives from the dog is as important as the physical help, Worley told the kids. "It's good to have a friend who will never poke fun at me," he said.

Worley was part of the school's Take a Veteran to School program Tuesday, invited by sponsor History Channel to speak about his service in Iraq.

He was a Navy hospital corpsman, serving in Fallujah as the medic to a Marine unit in 2004 when his truck convoy drove over improvised explosive devices.

Worley lost more than half of his left leg and wears a prosthetic leg now. He had such severe injuries to his right leg that he now has a fused ankle and a reconstructed knee, and has limited mobility.

Benjamin, who is about 31/2 years old, was trained at America's VetDogs, a program for disabled veterans run under the auspices of Guide Dog Foundation for the Blind in Smithtown.

The VetDogs program has placed about 80 trained dogs with veterans in the past few years, said Bill Krol, communications manager for the foundation. The program is free for applicants and funded through private and corporate sponsors and government grants.

Each dog undergoes months of training before it is matched to an applicant based on personality, needs and lifestyles, Krol said. Each person matched with a guide dog must also come to the Smithtown facility for weeks of training with the dog before they return home together.

Worley patted Benjamin lovingly. "He is perfect for me," he said.