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JM students raise funds to train service dogs for veterans

donnie and paul 2.jpg
Donnie and Paul

Paul and Donnie are only puppies, but already their mission in life has been set.

During the next two years, the yellow Labrador retrievers will undergo training at the Warrior Canine Connection program in Bethesda, Md., The two pups are destined to become service dogs, thanks to a $50,000 donation from John Marshall High School students. By the time these dogs graduate with their service vests, the group of JM students who spearheaded the fundraising as sophomores will be on the verge of graduation.

Service dogs are trained to help returning veterans deal with the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder . But wherever they go and whomever they serve, the two dogs will always bear a JM imprint. They are named after two JM graduates, Paul Allen and Donnie A. Geerdes, both of whom died in combat during the Vietnam conflict.

The JM students began their fundraising in November soon after hearing a Veterans Day presentation by Rick Yount, the Warrior Canine Connection director. Students fanned out across the city, giving presentations to various service and veterans organization. Their appeal struck a chord in many listeners. Money poured in, enough to train not one service dog, as JM students had originally set out to do, but two. The Disabled American Veterans and Tee it up for the Troops were among the biggest contributors.

"I think a large part of it is that veterans were touched that high school students cared enough about veterans," said Valerie Wassmer, a JM social studies teacher who served as an adviser on the project. "They were just pleased that young people are taking an interest. That's a big part of it."

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Yount said the dogs-in-training will be brought into contact with scores of wounded service members and veterans during their two years of training. The object is not only to train dogs to be companions to veterans with significant mobility and psychological issues, but to bring maturity and seasoning to the dogs as well.

"Rather than taking off because you see a ball in the street and taking a veteran on a hell-ride in a wheelchair, we want to make sure that they're sound and mature," Yount said.

Although the students might never see the dogs, they are able to watch their progress through a live, online puppy cam .

"I'm already addicted," Wassmer said. "I watch them all the time."

Although veterans have been returning from wars with PTSD-like symptoms for as long as there have been wars, it's only been within the last several years that science and research have documented the unique contributions made by service dogs. But the bond between man and dog has never been a secret. Indeed, Canine Warrior Connection has as its tag line: Serving human kind for over 30,000 years.

Yount admitted that when he was first invited to speak at JM, he was somewhat skeptical that it would be a good use of his time. But the respectful hearing he got from JM's 1,600 students during a school-wide assembly convinced him of the seriousness of their intention.

"The efforts at John Marshall should be a model," Yount said. "I've never heard of anything like this from a high school. It's an extraordinary story."

Aaron Kapinos, a JM sophomore, said it wasn't hard to find the motivation to help.

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"It's a new way of treating PTSD and traumatic brain disorder, and lot of families have been touched by someone who has been in the military and come home with similar disorders," Kapinos said.

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