The stresses and trauma of returning from active duty in the military or navy are often overlooked by society. As disabled navy veterans themselves, nobody understands this better than Michael and Brenda Carlson. In April 2011, they started an organization to help veterans in Northern Nevada deal with these stresses by providing them with pets.
Hero Pets 4 Hero Vets was inspired by the effect a small rescue dog named Piper had on Michael's foster father, Daniel Chapman, who is a disabled Vietnam veteran with Agent Orange poisoning.
When Chapman went to visit his son and daughter-in-law shortly after they had taken Piper in from a shelter, he very quickly became enamored with her. The effects she had on him were remarkable. "For some reason, this little rescue just clicked with him," says Brenda.
They gave Chapman the dog to take home with him. "Within months, my father-in-law, who'd actually given up on life, had lost 40lbs, his diabetes was under control," says Brenda.
Brenda Carlson explains that the effect that pets can have on veterans is "one of those things where we know from our experiences." "The physical issues, the emotional issues, all those types of encompassing things that come along with being a disabled veteran. Our animals have really helped us a lot, too."
The effect that Piper had on Chapman was just the final push they needed to start Hero Pets 4 Hero Vets.
"Our mission statement is to actually take rescue animals -- any sort of an animal -- and match it up to veterans in active duty or disabled veterans," Brenda explains. And when they say "any sort of an animal," that is exactly what they mean.
While they do pair up veterans with dogs -- including service dogs for those who need more than just companionship, they definitely offer more unusual pets. Think birds, turtles and iguanas.
For veterans who live in a small apartment or are unable to leave the house each day, a reptile can provide the perfect solution. They still provide companionship but are less work for the veteran on a day-to-day basis.
Veteran James Bruns explains that having his iguana has helped him greatly. "If you have responsibilities, it'll get you doing things." And because his iguana needs the sun, it forces him to "get outside with him." "It gets me out and doing things, moving about," Bruns says.
The other advantage to a pet is that when a veteran is feeling less than sociable, the company will help cheer them up but requires less of an effort on the veteran's part if they feel like time to themselves. As Bruns says, "if I don't feel good, he's not hurt ... he doesn't require much."
Hero Pets 4 Hero Vets pairs the veteran with the pet they feel will best provide them with support and companionship. After an initial 'date' where the pet and vet get to know each other, they are invited to go on a second outing to see if they will work together well.
There's no pressure for the veteran to take the pet with them. Brenda Carlson emphasizes that "we want to make sure it's a perfect match."
The animals they offer to the veterans are all saved from rescues or some who are about to become homeless. In pairing these homeless animals with the veterans, they create a perfect combination that helps both parties involved and truly changes people's lives.
Michael Carlson says that "it made a difference in my dad's life and we just started doing this and we're noticing a major difference in people's lives."