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Shelter to Soldier: Canine Companionship for Veterans

Shelter to Soldier is a California organization that adopts shelter dogs and trains them to become companions for combat veterans who are suffering from PTSD. With the love and support from each other, both the dog and the vet are able to recover and move forward.

Adam Cunningham is a Marine Corps veteran who struggled to adjust after returning from deployment to Afghanistan. With help from Shelter to Soldier, he has started to see his hope return. He tells his story in the video above, also transcribed for your convenience below (lightly edited for clarity).

Adam Cunningham, Marine Corps Veteran 00:35 – I am confident – within a 90th percentile – sure that I would not be here during these times to do this interview, or even be around if I didn’t have Bash. So I am extremely, extremely thankful that I did find Shelter to Soldier.

shelter to soldier patch

Graham Bloem, Shelter to Soldier Co-Founder/President 01:00 – Shelter to Soldier is a California 501c3 nonprofit. And our mission is essentially saving lives two at a time. We’re adopting dogs from local shelters and rescues all throughout Southern California. We’re training those dogs for 12 to 18 months to become psychiatric service dogs. And then we’re placing those dogs at no charge with deserving veterans in need.

Having that dog stay with you through thick and thin. It’s priceless.

Adam 01:22 – Joined the military out of high school, joined the Marine Corps, went through combat training and my MOS was Crash Fire Rescue. So airplanes, crashed vehicles, things like that. I put on a spacesuit and basically put out a fire, rescue people. I had the unique opportunity to deploy to Afghanistan. I felt like I left a part of me after I deployed like I didn’t feel the same. At the time, I didn’t know what it was. I don’t want the stigma. I didn’t want any of the “broken merchandise,” so to speak, label. Eventually you have to get out of the Marine Corps sometime. And because I never addressed things that I felt, things I’ve seen, after getting out I just felt like I didn’t have any real options. I guess everything just felt so hazy so murky, so it wasn’t clear what I should be doing. During this time. I just felt so hopeless, helpless, lost. The more I tried things, I just felt more frustrated because I’m trying all these things and they’re not working. So one day, I just had enough of it and tried to commit suicide. Lo and behold, that didn’t work. either. I became more frustrated. It was absolutely mind rending to feel stuck, you know, what skills do I have? Like, what can I do? How can I leverage what I’ve done with where I want to go feeling how I feel? So I went to try Military Contracting without the plan of coming back. The Taliban couldn’t kill me and I couldn’t kill myself, so what was going to be my outcome? What was I going to do? I felt like I was just slowly suffocating.

Adam Marines to civilian

And at that point, it was okay with me. I didn’t care. I just at this point just wanted to burn out and left foot in front of the right foot until the left foot didn’t come after. So I went to a VA group therapy for post traumatic stress. And they’re handing out a bunch of papers. I wasn’t really paying attention. And I remember as I was leaving one of the other attendees there, he was just like, “Hey, have you heard about Shelter to Soldier?” And he’s like hey, just give them a look. Okay, yeah, fine, whatever. I had gone to work. And I found it in my backpack, you know, with the VA paperwork. I took a look at it, I was like, let’s see what this is. It was Shelter to Soldier. I could feel my anxiety really start to kick in as I clicked on the application to see if I would be a good fit for them.

vet and shelter dog

Graham 03:34 – We have heard so many times I just need a little bit of lightness to keep pushing. And that little bit of light will keep me going. It’s not just serving that veteran and that dog but now it’s also helping people hearing about it that have served that need this.

. . . put out your hand, look for that light

Adam 03:48 – I got in contact with Vic, and he invited me down to actually go down to the site for Shelter to Soldier, everyone kind of felt like they understood. I didn’t see that look of just judgment, its empathetic. After a while I was invited to come back and start doggie speed dating, and Bash came in the room. He kind of like booped my hand with his snoot, and then hopped up, and it was just like, “Hey, I’m here, like, what’s going on, man?” So after that, we started training, I really started to get a feel for what he liked what he didn’t like. And as the time went on, I kind of really learned his quirks. And I think he learned a few of my along the way. It puts a smile on my face just thinking about the training sessions because there is nothing better. Together we just put the left foot in front of the right foot, in his case, his paws and graduated officially the Wednesday after Veterans Day.

veteran with service dog

Adam 04:47 – After experiencing the brotherhood of the military, after experiencing losing best friends; The relationship I have a Bash, it’s almost like you’re taking the best out of all of those categories, wrapping it up in a dog and then having that dog stay with you through thick and thin. It’s priceless. If there were other people out there that felt the way I did, I’ll tell you that in that situation, even if you’ve got just that small, that glimpse of light, you know, it could be dim. You’re gonna want it, you’re gonna want to reach out to it, put out your hand, look for that light.

veteran with service dog

Graham 05:12 – It’s the light that sadly 20 plus veterans a day aren’t seeing. And we want them to see we want this light to shine as bright as it possibly can. So that in a similar sense of shouting from the rooftops, we’re reaching as many people that are struggling as possible that could utilize our help or our services.

Adam with Bash Shelter to Soldier

Adam 05:32 – The light’s there. It’s hard to see it when everything’s as black as it is, but sometimes you’ve just gotta look a little harder.

If you’re a Veteran in crisis and in need of immediate help, contact the Veterans Crisis Line at 1-800-273-8255 or text to 838255.