Leaving no one behind

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By Optic Editorial Board

When President Obama spoke on Veterans Day at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, he spoke as if the United States never leaves any veteran behind. “We take care of our own,” he said more than once. It was inspirational rhetoric, but it’s not altogether true.

On the battlefield, a soldier is taught: leave no one behind — it’s something they strive to do even though it’s not always possible. But when soldiers return home, far too often they are left to fend for themselves.

Look at the homeless in our nation. One survey of 23,000 homeless people found that 15 percent of them are veterans, though vets make up only 9 percent of the national population. As a nation, we must face the harsh reality that soldiers are indeed being left behind, right here at home.

Recently, Las Vegas was introduced to a veteran who took it upon himself to help others who, like himself, have had difficulty leaving the wars behind. James Stanek came to town last week to speak about and raise money for Paws and Stripes, a program he and his wife founded a couple of years ago.

Paws and Stripes places shelter dogs with veterans suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and Traumatic Brain Injury. The vets participate in the selection and rescue of their dog, which is then trained to be a service dog for the veterans.

Stanek’s own story is reason enough to believe in the program. A Long Island, N.Y., native, he volunteered for the military a little more than a year after Sept. 11, 2001, after he’d helped with the cleanup.

Over his 6-1/2 years in the Army, including three tours of duty in Iraq, he suffered a number of injuries, including PTSD and Traumatic Brain Injury and was honorably discharged. He left the military as a staff sergeant and, in January 2010, married his wife Lindsey. They settled in Rio Rancho.

Stanek said after returning to the U.S. he was taking so much medicine that his “sink looked like the Walmart pharmacy,” but he noticed that he felt at his best in the companionship of his dog. So he tried to get his pet trained as a service dog and discovered it was extremely expensive and his benefits wouldn’t cover the costs. Finally, he and his wife decided to create their own program and broaden the service to other veterans suffering from some of the same problems Stanek was facing.

“You learn (in the military) that you never accept defeat or leave a comrade behind. So we won’t stop,” he told his Las Vegas audience last week. We believe him. So far, Paws and Stripes  has trained and matched 36 service dogs and veterans, with each match costing about $2,500. But there are about 700 vets on the waiting list, he said.

They’ve found support in Houston-based Kilburn Law Firm, which has raised more than $4,000 in donations to the program, and through Rep. Ben Ray Lujan.

Stanek has an obvious passion for what he’s doing — it was evident at last week’s fundraiser reception at the Plaza Hotel. His story is one of a war hero who came home and found himself through serving others who have the same war wounds as he does. Stanek is a hero at home too, though he deflected such praise last week.

“Don’t give me a round of applause,” he said. “Thank the vets.”
With all our hearts, yes, we do.