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Defense Leaders Promote Benefits of Assistance Dogs for Veterans

By Karen Parrish
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, Sept. 30, 2010 – Sebastian “call-me-Sam” Cila has the physique of an Ironman competitor, the accent of a wiseguy, and a missing left hand. But what many people notice first about him has four feet and soft brown eyes.

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Dr. Clifford L. Stanley, undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness, discusses U.S. veterans and Canine Companions for Independence at the Women in Military Service for America Memorial in Washington Sept. 29. DOD photo by Karen Parrish

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Gillian, a black Labrador, has been an extra hand for Cila, a retired Army sergeant in the National Guard, since his amputation in 2009.

“She’s able to open doors for me, and hold doors for me as I juggle two kids, their football pads, groceries – she makes everyday living easier for me,” Cila said.

Cila and Gillian attended the Canine Companions for Independence event here Sept. 29 at the Women in Military Service for America Memorial. Canine Companions officials hosted the event to inform attendees how assistance dogs enhance the lives of veterans with physical disabilities.

The nonprofit organization offers injured veterans the chance to train and partner with assistance dogs free, through its Wounded Veterans Initiative.

Dr. Clifford L. Stanley, undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness, spoke during the event about his own experience with assistance dogs. Rosalyn, Stanley’s wife of nearly 40 years, is paraplegic and partnered with her own dog, Juno.

“We were not dog owners or lovers. I will tell you that our Juno changed our lives,” Stanley said. “I’m greeted at the door, even before my wife gets there. You know what I mean … I have a friend, and we have a friend. And although Juno is Roz’s dog, he’s a part of our family.”

Stanley said for the nation’s approximately 40,000 veterans wounded in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, such dogs can offer not just friendship, but a fuller life.

“For our troops, our people who served, who sacrificed … there’s an opportunity to make a real difference in their lives, and I know that service dogs have a key role in that,” he said.

Wednesday’s event also included a welcome from Air Force retired Brig. Gen. Wilma L. Vaught, president of the Women’s Memorial Foundation, and remarks from Cila, Corey Hudson, Canine Companions for Independence chief executive officer, and from Buddy Hayes, a retired Army veteran accompanied by her service dog, Ellie.

The program also featured a demonstration featuring CCI instructor Flora Baird. Baird and a Canine Companions assistance dog in training, Talita, demonstrated some of the tasks a canine companion is trained to perform: pick up and deliver objects, open doors and pull wheelchairs using an attached strap, even help an owner remove articles of clothing.

While Cila realizes many wounded veterans may think a service dog isn’t necessary, he offers his own experience as a lesson.

Cila served and was deployed with the New York National Guard’s 1st Battalion, 69th Infantry Regiment, when he was severely injured. He was on foot, patrolling near Baghdad when he was hurt by a roadside bomb July 4, 2005.

Four years and 40 surgeries led up to his amputation. Last year, he and his doctors decided that amputating his left hand offered Cila’s best chance at regaining the kind of lifestyle he wants.

“Like most wounded soldiers, I went through that dark, downward spiral of depression,” Cila said. “I sort of had to re-identify who I was and what I was going to be.”

Cila credits his wife, Anna, and their two sons the most for support during his recovery and return to a full life. But he said when Canine Companions for Independence introduced him to Gillian, he knew he had found an important team member to help him meet the challenges of living without a left hand.

Cila normally uses a prosthetic hand. He is currently training for the Ironman Triathlon and has lost enough weight that the prosthesis needs refitting, he said. But even when he uses the prosthesis, Gillian helps ensure he doesn’t over-use and injure his right side.

Gillian is not just a teammate, but also a family friend when she’s off-duty, he said. When Gillian entered the Cilas’ life she brought someone else with her: Maggie (Marguerite) Deely, Gillian’s “puppy raiser.”

“Maggie’s a very special young lady,” Cila said. “Gillian is always happy to see her.”

Canine Companions’ puppy raisers volunteer to foster potential assistance dogs from weaning until the age of 18 months. The dogs then complete advanced training before they’re matched with owners.

Maggie became a puppy raiser through the Make-A-Wish foundation when she was 8 years old.

“I had cancer when I was 8. I had a brain tumor, actually. The Make-A-Wish foundation let me have a wish, and my wish was to train a guide dog,” Maggie said. “So we got hooked up with CCI, and then we got Gillian.”

Now 11 and free of cancer following surgery and radiation, Maggie said she has learned a lot since she met Gillian.

“The puppy stage was kind of hard,” she said. “They don’t know anything when you first get them. And also giving her away was hard.”

Maggie’s brother Kevin is now raising a puppy for Canine Companions. The children’s mother, Cathy Deely, said the family attends CCI’s training classes.

“The people are just amazing,” Deely said.

The Deely family stays in touch with the Cilas, and Maggie said she thinks Gillian is where she should be.

“I love Sam. He’s got two kids, and Gillian’s full of energy, and she loves kids. I think she’s in a good place there,” she said.

“The dogs begin their training at 8 weeks of age, when they go into the homes of volunteer puppy raisers,” Baird said. “Then when they’re fully grown, the dogs then enter what we call advanced training at our regional centers. They’re in that training for six to nine months, and this is where they learn the more service-oriented tasks.”

A further, two-week training phase takes place when a dog is assigned to an owner, and both work as a team together under supervision before graduating from the program.

Contact Author

Dr. Clifford L. Stanley

Related Sites:
Canine Companions for Independence

Click photo for screen-resolution imageSam Cila, a retired Army sergeant wounded by an IED in Iraq in 2005, and his companion dog, Gillian, attend the Canine Companions for Independence event at the Women in Military Service for America Memorial Sept. 29 in Washington. DOD photo by Karen Parrish  
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Click photo for screen-resolution imageMaggie Deely, left, and veteran Sam Cila, a retired Army sergeant, accompanied by Cila's companion dog, Gillian, attend the Canine Companions for Independence event at the Women in Military Service for America Memorial Sept. 29 in Washington. Maggie raised Gillian from 8 weeks to 18 months of age. DOD photo by Karen Parrish  
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