SAN ANTONIO – Since opening their facility in San Antonio in 2017, Paws for Purple Hearts has impacted warriors facing challenges including PTSD, traumatic brain injury or mobility impairments.
The first few years were focused on developing their Service Dog Training Canine Assisted Therapy to help ease the symptom severity of a warrior and helping them learn to once again trust through contact with puppies and dogs.
“From puppy to placement, (these dogs) impact about 40 to 60 warriors in the span of their training,” Jessica Delgado said.
Delgado is the South-Mid Regional Director for Paws for Purple Hearts. The nonprofit’s local team is made up of four team members including the two program instructors in charge of training puppies like Jacq or dogs like Allen. The length of training is unique to each animal but can last anywhere from 2 to 3 years before they’re matched with their permanent wounded warrior.
“We rely on volunteers (and) our warriors who come out here and some of them love us so much, they come back and volunteer on different days,” Delgado said. “We’re really grateful for them.”
Active duty Army soldier, George Rivera Valverde, is one of hundreds of warriors who have experienced the benefits of this form of canine assisted therapy. Rivera Valverde joined the Army in 2012.
“(I joined the Army) immediately after high school. I actually graduated early to join the military,” Rivera Valverde said.
He was deployed to Afghanistan, later to Iraq and then spend a few years in Hawaii. He ended up in Texas after an accident while on his motorcycle.
“I was changing lanes, didn’t look over my shoulder, and I hit one of my friends who was also on a bike,” Rivera Valverde said. “I got tossed off the bike and hit a guardrail post. Then, I spent about five and a half months in the hospital recovering.”
Between the trauma, multiple surgeries and slow recovery, the soldier later realized he had fallen into depression.
“I came to Texas and I was in this hole on my own just trying to recover,” Rivera Valverde said. “Then when this was introduced, I was like, okay, every Tuesday I have a reason to get out of my room and go do something fun.”
As a child, the soldier always felt a deep connection with dogs. He knew volunteering at the nonprofit was a perfect fit. Rivera Valverde currently volunteers weekly to help train dogs and mentor new volunteers.
“Every dog has their own personality, so you can’t just jump into it expecting the same reaction every time. So, (training requires) a lot of patience.”
Through Paws for Purple Hearts, wounded warriors interact with labradors, golden retrievers or mix of the two breeds.
“We place two types of service dogs. One is a mobility assistance dog and the other is a psychiatric support dog,” Delgado said. “So, if (the service dog is trained for) mobility assistance, they can help to open and close doors, cabinets, drawers. If they are a psychiatric support dog, they are trained to pick up on harmful ideations, harmful behaviors. For example, they are trained to recognize the beginnings of an anxiety attack. They’re also trained to interrupt nightmares (through) pressure therapy.”
Although San Antonio isn’t the city Rivera Valverde calls home, he admits it will be tough to say goodbye to his Paws for Purple Hearts family. He hopes other military women and men struggling emotionally or physically visit the nonprofit to experience the benefits first-hand.
“A lot of strong-minded veterans who don’t want help but understand that they need it, (would love this),” Rivera Valverde said. “I feel like most of them would probably prefer an animal than a human doing things for them.”
For more information on Paws for Purple Hearts in San Antonio, click here.
To explore volunteer opportunities with the nonprofit, click here.