Freedom on four legs

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by Stephanie Hertzenberg

Helyn and Christina Zumbathon

Helyn Stowe (right) and Christina Kunkle (left) speak before the Red, White and Boogie Zumbathon benefiting K9’s For Warriors begins. Astro enjoys the attention of the crowd at Helyn’s side. Photo provided

It was still winter in Staunton when Helyn Stowe noticed the pads of her chocolate lab, Astro, were badly cracked. Helyn knew there were dog balms to help dogs with cracked pads, but she wanted to use something all-natural. She knew coconut oil was safe for dogs and had always enjoyed working with bees, so she decided to make a dog balm out of coconut oil and beeswax.

“When I put it on him,” Helyn said, “he loved it. I watched his pads for the next couple days, and they became soft and pliable again.”

Helyn enjoyed making the dog balm, now called Astroglyde, and decided to create more dog products. “I had a farm up in New York, and it kept me really busy. I used to sell eggs, turkey and goat meat up there. I started making dog products and found it was something I was good at. I could talk to people about the products.”

Almost every dog owner has wanted to pamper their pooch at some point, but Astro is more than just Helyn’s companion. Astro is her service dog.

After being wounded in Afghanistan, Helyn was fast-tracked for a K9’s For Warriors service dog. “I’d always wanted a chocolate lab, but we needed to make sure my service dog was good for mobility because I have more than PTSD,” Helyn said. “I can’t walk down the stairs by myself, so he needed to be at hip height in case I tripped.”

On her second day at Camp K9’s, Helyn was matched with Astro. “You see people go in the kennel and then you see people come out with their dog,” Helyn said. “It’s a big secret. When it was my turn, I went in and they said, ‘And Helyn gets Astro.’ I turned around, and it’s the chocolate lab.”

Four years later, Astro would be the inspiration for Helyn’s line of dog products, Paws 4 Freedom. Products include Buddy Bug Be Gone tick and mosquito spray, peanut butter based treats called Molly Mud Bites and Gracie Poo dog shampoo. All of the products are made with all-natural, simple ingredients such as aloe and beeswax. “Making products has helped me with my PTSD,” Helyn said. “When I got here I didn’t have the military, I didn’t have the farm. I sat in my apartment and I thought ‘Ooh, Helyn. We need to find something do to.’ And I thought, I need to do something [for Astro].”

Helyn enjoyed making the products and has begun marketing them on her Facebook page, Facebook.com/Paws4Freedom, as well as around the Valley. She sold the products at the Fine Earth Adventure Race in June and at the Dayton Muddler in August. “The goal is to do the Harrisonburg and Staunton farmers’ markets next year. It’s always fun to jump right in, but sometimes you have to start with baby steps and my PTSD doesn’t allow me to run out the door full force,” Helyn said. Her products are also sold on WarPaints.org, a website devoted to selling veteran-made products and art.

Unfortunately, few stories like Helyn’s have happy endings. Twenty-two veterans kill themselves every day.

In addition to helping the four-legged members of the community, each Paws 4 Freedom product is named after a K9’s For Warriors service dog. “I didn’t realize when I first started that I had named the overall line after my mentor’s service dog, Freedom.” Helyn said. “I called it Paws 4 Freedom because Astro gave me the freedom to do things I never thought I could do again…He is my best friend, he is my lifesaver.”

For Helyn, “lifesaver” is more than a figure of speech. Before she was matched with Astro, Helyn had stopped eating and was starving herself. After they were matched together, her marriage became abusive and Helyn was ready to take her own life. “I sat down and loaded my weapon and thought, ‘I’m done.’ My husband was at work and my daughter was in college,” Helyn said. “Then Astro went and got his ball. I kept ignoring him, and he kept giving me the ball. When I finally realized what he was doing … I said, ‘Tomorrow we’re going to leave and we’re going to Virginia.’”

After Helyn left her husband, K9’s For Warriors was there for her. “The next day, Shari Duval [the founder of K9’s For Warriors]called me and asked, ‘What do you need?’ She has over 300 of us graduates, and she keeps up with us. She knows if we need anything. It’s like a family.”

Unfortunately, few stories like Helyn’s have happy endings. Twenty-two veterans kill themselves every day, though organizations such as K9’s For Warriors are working to decrease that number. Individuals and business owners throughout the area have joined forces to help organizations dedicated to assisting veterans through events such as the Dayton Muddler and the Fine Earth Adventure Race. Proceeds from the Dayton Muddler benefit the Boulder Crest Retreat for Military and Veteran Wellness, and the proceeds from the Fine Earth Adventure Race benefit K9’s For Warriors.

The two Fine Earth Adventure Races put on by Chad Layman have been wildly successful. The 2016 race raised $175,000, and the 2017 race raised over $200,000–enough to cover the cost of an entire class of K9’s For Warriors graduates. In recognition of the size of the donation, K9’s For Warriors allowed Chad to name one of the service-dogs-in-training. Chad decided to name the young black lab Duke. “I chose the name because I’m a JMU alumnus,” said Chad. “JMU is a huge part of my life, and I’m a big football fan.”

Duke may be part of a graduating class as early as spring 2018, but it will depend on both how quickly she completes her training and when a veteran arrives who is a good match. “K9’s For Warriors wants to know the veteran,” Chad said, “So they can pair the vet with the best service dog…They really spend a lot of time making sure it’s the right fit.”

In addition to acting as a PTSD service dog, Duke may be like Astro who is trained to deal with both Helyn’s PTSD and mobility issues. “We train the dogs to fit the veteran’s needs,” said Tim Tonsor, Manager of K9 Training and Behavior, such as if the dog needs to heel on the right because the owner uses a cane in the left hand. One veteran wasn’t wheelchair bound but when traveling by air needed a wheelchair to get to the flight gate. “We made sure the dog was trained to heel by the wheelchair,” said Tim.

Service dogs have been known to form an instant bond with their owners. The day after Helyn was paired with Astro, he started whining and leaning against her during one of the group training classes. “I was thinking, ‘Did you guys give me a defective dog? How am I going to handle him? I can’t even handle myself!’ and the trainer told me to check myself. Was I feeling alright? I said I was fine, but ten minutes later I was hit with a vertigo attack. He was trying to tell me he knew it was coming.”

Tim relayed he saw a similar situation where a veteran had a fainting episode the day he got his service dog. “The dog stayed with him, laid over top of the veteran and wouldn’t let anyone come near him … They had only known each other for 6 or 7 hours. The dog just naturally stayed with him until help arrived.”

That bond never weakens, either. “He has never let me down,” said Helyn. “He has always known when my vertigo is coming on or my anxiety or when I forget to put my hearing aid in. He always finds a way to tell me.”

Chad is hopeful that the veteran Duke is paired with will be open to connecting with Chad. “I’d really like to get to meet the owner and invite them to the community. Hopefully we can do something cool like recognize them at halftime at a JMU football game.”

As well as hoping to plan a trip to Florida to see Duke graduate with a warrior, Chad is already working on next year’s Adventure Race. Chad hopes the race will help lower the stigma against those with mental health issues. “It’s stigmatized anyway, but especially among veterans.” Though not a veteran himself, Chad struggled with depression and anxiety that ultimately led to a 12-hour ordeal with the authorities attempting to talk him out of suicide.

“You are only as sick as your secrets,” Chad said. “If you keep it inside you are carrying around this pain and suffering. It’s difficult to heal if you don’t share that…You need to find someone, preferably a professional, but at least some loved ones and get it out. We’ve been very aggressive about trying to take on the stigma so that people know they are not alone. There are people that want to help them.”

Those like Chad Layman and K9’s For Warriors are looking to take care of veterans.  “It’s up to nonprofits to help,” said Chad. “That our community stepped up to be part of that made me feel really proud and really humble. Everyone put differences and politics aside and said, ‘We want to help. We want to have our veterans’ backs.”

Like other service-dog–veteran pairs, Astro has certainly had Helyn’s back in a way no one else could. “The service dog already knows what to do,” she laughed. “They are training you. I had to learn that he’s never acting up. He’s trying to tell me something. Our dogs are connected with us. Astro passed his training when he did because that was the time I was coming. He was meant for me.”

Stephanie Hertzenberg is a year-long intern with Valley Living.

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