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ARIZONA’S HEART & SOL: Service pets helping vets

KOLD News 6-6:30 p.m. recurring
Published: Mar. 3, 2022 at 3:26 PM MST|Updated: Mar. 3, 2022 at 5:56 PM MST
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TUCSON, Ariz. (KOLD News 13) - Around 22 American military veterans commit suicide every day.

It’s a staggering and tragic number for those who served our country.

In this week’s Arizona’s Heart & Sol, we highlight a local organization dedicated to helping veterans who are battling PTSD.

The group pairs the veteran up with a new best friend.

“Several years ago, I was diagnosed with PTSD,” said David Rafus, founder of the 1 Veteran Foundation.

Rafus is a Marine who spent more than a decade as a truck driver.

His symptoms, which didn’t appear until after retirement, came in the form of nightmares.

“My wife and I had been discussing getting a service dog and we started looking around and there were no organizations in southern Arizona that would basically help find a service dog for us,” he said.

That’s when the couple started their foundation.

With an army of volunteers, they find dogs, mostly those up for adoption at local shelters, and begin the long training program.

“They have to pass a personality test,” Rafus said. “If a dog shows any sign of aggression, they can’t be a service dog. They have to be able to handle high-stress situations, they have to be able to protect their veteran not in an aggressive way, but in a nurturing way.”

The training is tailor-fitted for each individual.

“We call them teammates,” Rafus said. “For most veterans, when they get out of the military one of their biggest struggles is that their team is no longer there. That’s where the teammate part comes into play.”

These dogs can even be taught to sense when a vet is having a flashback.

“The body undergoes a hormone change and the dog can sense that before it manifests itself,” Rafus said. “The dogs will get the attention of the veteran, draw their attention to them to try and mitigate the circumstances of their mind going in that direction.

It’s a form of redirecting their attention so instead of putting it on a traumatic event, they put it towards the dog. It’s not a cure for PTSD, it’s a tool that will help them manage it and become productive again.”

For the life-saving work, 1 Veteran Foundation received a $300 gift card from KOLD partner Casino Del Sol.

“Thank you, that’s very generous,” Rafus said. “This will go to good use. We’ve got more vests we need to buy for our dogs and this will come in handy.”

The cost of a service dog can run as high as $30,000.

Rafus has created a dedicated network of people who want to help, and they’ve been able to get the cost down to $2,500.

“That $2,500 basically covers the cost of training, some admin expenses and small medical bills if they should arise at during training,” he said. “Some dogs are a little more, some a little less. It just depends on the need of the dogs and the veteran we’re training for.

“I was in the Marine Corps for seven years and we do things on shoe strings budget. Something that always stuck with me is doing more with less. We do everything we’re capable of doing to help out these vets and use as little money as possible.”

This is where our community can help.

At 3 p.m. Saturday, March 26, 1 Veteran Foundation is hosting its “Save a Pet, Save a Vet” fundraiser at Chuy’s Mesquite Broiler, located at 7101 East 22nd Street.

There will be live music, a raffle and an auction. All the money raised will go towards training more dogs to help more veterans. You can make a donation anytime by going to https://1veteranfoundation.org/.

If you know someone who represents Arizona’s Heart and Sol, use the form below. You can read about other Heart & Sol winners HERE.

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