A different kind of veterans service program took center stage Thursday at a fundraiser in the Plaza Hotel, thanks to a Las Vegas native who now practices law in Houston.
The program is called Paws and Stripes and it was co-founded by Iraq war veteran James Stanek. Based in Rio Rancho, the program takes shelter dogs and places them with veterans suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and Traumatic Brain Injury. The rescued canines are trained, with the veteran’s help, to act as service dogs for the veterans.
The hometown native is Miguel Suazo, a 31-year-old Robertson High School graduate who later earned a law degree at Georgetown University in Washington D.C. He then worked for Sen. Jeff Bingaman but now practices law in Houston, Texas. He said he was introduced to Paws and Stripes by Rep. Ben Ray Lujan and his staff.
Suazo works at the Kilburn Law Firm. The firm practices in 19 states and Suazo leads the New Mexico work these days. Kerry Kiburn, a veteran of the Vietnam War, asked him to identify a program in New Mexico “that does good veterans work … and Congressman Lujan put me in touch with Paws and Stripes,” Suazo said.
To raise money for the program, Suazo set up last week’s Las Vegas reception — the first of what’s hoped to be an annual fundraiser for Paws and Stripes. At the event, Suazo announced a donation of more than $4,000 to be given to the program, from the Kilburn law practice and its oil-and-gas industry clients — with more coming in from the Las Vegas fundraiser.
“That means everything,” Stanek said after Suazo announced the financial support. “Thank you so much, from the bottom of my heart.”
As a nonprofit organization serving wounded veterans by providing them with service dogs trained by professionals, Paws and Stripes’ website states that the intent is to provide the dogs and the training at “no cost to the veteran.”
Stanek pointed out that the program — which he founded along with his wife — only selects shelter dogs. The program works with the veteran until they find the right fit from a local shelter or foster home to serve the veteran’s needs.
Why rescue dogs? Stanek said it’s because they have been isolated and sometimes lack certain social skills, much like many returning veterans. “We put two mutts together and train them together,” he said, “and that entire process brings them together.”
Some 36 veterans and dogs have now been matched through Paws and Stripes, Stanek said, but about 700 veterans are on the program’s waiting list. The cost per matchup, he said, is about $2,500.
Lujan also spoke at Thursday’s fundraiser.
“You say you want to be put out of business,” he said to Stanek, who quickly responded, “Yes, sir.”
“But not until you’ve served all the veterans,” Lujan added.
The congressman praised the program for its service to veterans in need and urged people to contribute.
“No contribution’s too small,” he said to about 25 contributors who had gathered for the reception. “No contribution’s too large, either.”