Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

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September 25, 2012

Inmates train dogs for disabled vets

CUMBERLAND, Md. — Prisoners at the Western Correctional Institution hope three puppies could lead them to a more fulfilling life.

Through a partnership with America’s VetDogs, incarcerated veterans and other inmates at WCI will train the animals to serve as service dogs for disabled veterans.

Western Correctional is the first maximum-security prison in the nation to implement this program, prison officials said.

The yellow Labrador Retriever puppies, named Yardley, Dill and Vero, will live in the cells with the inmates during the training in special metal cages.

Training will last for one year before the service dogs “graduate” to more specific training and then eventually be placed with a disabled veteran suffering from brain injuries, post-traumatic stress disorder, amputations and other physical and psychological disorders.

Mark Vernarelli, director of public information for the Maryland Department Of Public Safety and Correctional Services, said the inmates were chosen based on their “overall good attitudes and work ethic in prison.”

“Many are incarcerated veterans, making the restorative justice element incredibly strong,” he said. “You can't do better than having incarcerated veterans helping wounded American veterans.”

According to Sheila O’Brien, a representative from America’s VetDogs, more than 46,000 wounded veterans have returned from Afghanistan and Iraq. Through this program, many of these veterans will have the support they need to lead independent lives.

Marine Master Sgt. Mark Gwathmey, a veteran wounded in Iraq, was also present for the ceremony, along with his own service dog, Larry. Gwathmey suffers from a seizure disorder caused by explosions during his third tour of duty. Larry, a yellow Labrador Retriever, is a seizure-alert service dog and is credited with saving his master’s life on three different occasions.

America’s VetDogs is a nonprofit organization founded by the Guide Dog Foundation for the Blind to serve the needs of disabled veterans and individuals who are visually impaired.

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Details for this story were provided by Angie Brant, a reporter for The Cumberland (Md.) Times-News. She can be reached at abrant@times-news.com.

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