Memorial Day Benefit: K9s for Warriors Saluted for Serving Veterans

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Retired USMC Captain Jason Haag with Axel, a K9s for Warriors service dog. | Courtesy Kirsten Fedewa & Associates

The Capitol Hill Club hosted the Fourth Annual Memorial Day Kick-off and Veterans Tribute, honoring veterans and veterans in Congress and benefiting K9s for Warriors, a nonprofit dedicated to providing service canines to warriors suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, traumatic brain injury or trauma as a result of military service post 9/11.

Emceed by CBS News Chief White House Correspondent Major Garrett, the May 19 reception was attended by several Members of Congress, including Rep. Mike Coffman (R-Colo.), Rep. Ryan Zinke (R-Mont.) and Rep. Charlie Rangel (D-N.Y.), all veterans, all of whom addressed the audience.

Zinke, a freshman congressman who served as a Navy SEAL, from 1985 to 2008, called today’s servicemembers “magnificent,” highlighting the “enormous sacrifice these men and women are making every day.”

Citing the hostile reception that many U.S. warriors received upon returning home from the Vietnam war, Coffman, who possesses 20 years of combined service to the Army, Army Reserve, Marines and Marine Reserve, urged the crowd of supporters and politicians to “make sure our veterans that are returning home today are never treated like those returning from Vietnam.”

Rangel, a recipient of a Purple Heart and a Bronze Star for his service in the U.S. Army during the Korean War, prompted attendees when speaking to vets, “Instead of just saying thank you, say ‘Can I help you? How are they treating you?’ ”

The attention being paid to veterans’ mental health and wellbeing upon returning home from combat is relatively new, when compared to America’s lengthy wartime history. “When you leave the service,” Rangel said, “they teach you to be proud, but you can be lonely.”

Loneliness, depression, substance abuse and other problems of physical and mental health are all symptoms of PTSD that some veterans encounter upon returning home from military service. As greater recognition of the mental effects of war has come about in recent years, organizations like K9s for Warriors have come to the aid of afflicted servicemen and women.

Captain Jason Haag, a Purple Heart recipient who served three tours of combat duty leading Marine Corps troops across Iraq and Afghanistan, is a recipient of a K9s for Warriors dog named Axel. Haag gave a moving speech to the audience, crediting Axel with saving him from the despair he felt upon returning home after his third tour of duty. “Axel awakens me from my nightmares still today,” said Haag. He shared that he has lost nine friends to post-war suicide – a startling number, greater than those he has lost on the battlefield.

Haag shared that K9s for Warriors has a 100-percent success rate and in 2016 will save 200 veterans’ lives, as well as 200 dogs’ lives – 95 percent of the organization’s dogs are rescued from shelters. Axel was just two days away from being euthanized before being saved by the program.

Special guest, retired Air Force Brig. Gen. Steve Ritchie and the only fighter pilot ace of the Air Force since Korea, was honored. Ritchie received the Congressional Gold Medal the following day, an award bestowed by Congress and one of the highest civilian awards in the U.S.

After Ritchie’s speech, guests delighted over a performance of “O, America!” by Irish tenor Anthony Kearns and regaled while sipping spirits courtesy of the Beer Institute, the Wine Institute and Beam Suntory.

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