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Old 05-29-2012, 09:00 AM
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Default Queens disabled veteran is first in borough to graduate with assistance dog

from the NY Daily News:

Queens disabled veteran is first in borough to graduate with assistance dog
Dog helps Iraqi war vet adjust to civilian life

By Lisa L. Colangelo / NEW YORK DAILY NEWS
Sunday, May 27, 2012, 6:00 AM
U.S. Army Captain James Van Thach had no intention of leaving war-torn Iraq, even after he was injured twice.

An explosive device went off under his vehicle in 2006, causing him to suffer neck and back injuries.

Van Thach refused to budge even after he suffered a traumatic brain injury, blurred vision and more damage to his back when he was caught in the crosshairs of a rocket attack on an Iraqi military base one year later.

“I was in the hospital, looking at other soldiers missing arms and legs,” Van Thach, 36, recalled last week, sitting in the yard of his Queens home. “I felt like I didn’t deserve to be in the room with them. They needed spots on the plane to leave Iraq.”

Van Thach, who has since been honorably discharged, is trying to overcome his multiple injuries with an aggressive course of treatment, including physical therapy and medication.

He’s also found a new secret weapon to help ease his physical and emotional stresses — a lab/golden retriever mix named Liz.

Van Thach and Liz recently finished a demanding two-week training program at Canine Companions for Independence on Long Island.

As an assistance dog, Liz helps Van Thach with tasks such as picking up dropped items. While not formally trained to soothe his post traumatic stress disorder, she is a calming influence.

“She has changed by life,” said Van Thach, who lives in the Bellerose home where he grew up with his parents and younger brother. “I have to take 12 pills a day. I need the medicine to live and survive and if I drop them, my family isn’t always home to help.”

Van Thach is one of a handful of veterans to graduate from Canine Companions for Independence’s Wounded Veteran Initiative. He is helping spread the word in order to reach more veterans who may benefit from working with assistance dogs.

“The dogs give them both physical and emotional support,” said retired U.S. Army Col. E. David Woycik Jr., a lawyer who has helped CCI organize the Wounded Veteran Initiative. “They give them a sense of additional eyes, ears, arms and legs.”

Before his severe injuries, Van Thach seemed destined for a life in the military.

His father, John Peterkin, had served in the Army during World War II, Korea and Vietnam before retiring as a lieutenant colonel.

Van Thach enlisted in the Army shortly after graduating from Francis Lewis High School in 1994 and continued through his studies at St. John’s University and Touro Law Center.

But he abandoned plans to become a JAG office for a career in the infantry after the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks.

When his injuries meant he could no longer serve as an advisor to the Iraqi army, Van Thach’s mental toughness and drive helped him continue through the pain and even use his legal skills to help the military design and construct a base in Iraq.

“Coming home was a shock,” he admitted.

Woycik said the assistance dogs can also help veterans acclimate to the civilian world.

“Coming back is very difficult,” said Woycik. “For civilians the war is over there but for veterans it’s part of their everyday life.”

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