After he considered suicide, Curtis Thompson finally admitted that he might need help.
“I stereotyped myself. I wasn’t an old man, like in Vietnam and World War II,” says Army vet Thompson, 41, who lives in Burlington Township.
Deployed to Kosovo in 1999 and three times to Iraq, Thompson was discharged honorably in 2006. He got divorced from his first wife, couch surfed, and endured panic attacks, nightmares and brief homelessness.
By 2013, he reconnected with a high school sweetheart (they have since married). She insisted he seek treatment at VA medical centers in Philadelphia and Marlton, N.J., where he was diagnosed with a traumatic brain injury and severe PTSD from his time in combat and exposure to a roadside bomb.
“My doctor said a service dog would really help, but I couldn’t afford to pay $20,000” — the going price for a fully-trained service animal that is attuned to veterans and their health issues.
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Then, in 2017, he learned about Team Foster, a local nonprofit that pays for service dogs to be trained to assist wounded or traumatized veterans in the Greater Philadelphia area. He put himself on Team Foster’s waiting list, never expecting to hear back.
Team Foster has partnered with two training programs — Cells 2 Service (C2S) and Susquehanna Service Dogs — and is currently seeking partnerships with more dog-trainers.
Young pups from local shelters usually train with professionals for at least six months. The animals are then paired with a veteran; together, human and dog train for at least another year before the dog is designated as a fully certified service animal.
In April 2018, Thompson got the call from Team Foster. And Spence, a Lab mix with whitish-yellow fur, pawed his way into Thompson’s life.
“I couldn’t believe they had a dog for me. He was little! He looked like he was sad, but was so cute," recalls Thompson.
While Thompson had dogs before, Spence “is totally different," says Thompson. “He reads me, picks up on my anxiety attacks, or when I’m feeling down or can’t get out of bed. He sleeps next to me and will put his paw on me [if a panic attack creeps up]."
Thompson’s wife confirms his nightmares have ceased since Spence came to live with them.
Team Foster is an all-volunteer 501(c)(3) founded by local attorney and former JAG officer Nick Liermann in honor of his friend U.S. Army Capt. Erick Foster, who was killed in action in 2007. Liermann is Team Foster’s sole funder and creates innovative events to raise money for the nonprofit. Last year, Team Foster raised over $180,000.
The latest fund-raiser, called Ruff Ride: 24-hour Spin Relay, took place May 31 to June 1. Teams volunteered to man a spin bike, then riders took turns keeping the bike spinning for 24 consecutive hours. The event was held outside at One Commerce Square, 2005 Market St in Philadelphia., and featured spinning scores displayed on a jumbotron, music, food, and visits from service dogs and puppies in training. Another fundraiser is planned for September 14, 2019.
Thompson continues to train with Spence. They spend every hour in each other’s company and together they’re learning how Spence can retrieve things like medicines and cellphones.
“Sometimes I ask Spence, ‘How do you know how I’m feeling?’ But he just knows,” he said. “He’ll put a paw on my arm and give me a look, like ‘C’mon dad, lighten up.’ And I do.”
Arthur “Sonny” Wimberly was one of the first graduates of the Cells-2-Service program in 2018. His service dog is Juno, a husky mix. For two years they’ve been training together to learn increasingly complex tasks.
Wimberly, a Vietnam-era Army veteran who has multiple sclerosis and uses a wheelchair, says that Juno is like "a second spouse. He’s really good at finding stuff. I hide things and he finds them, and that reinforces [to him] that he can smell it, identify it, and get it from the guest room, even from under a blanket.
“I’m working on exit signs with him right now, so Juno can determine where to take me out the building,” says Wimberly. “I point to the sign, and he barks. He’s identified the sign, and when I say ‘out’, suddenly he’s looking for a handicapped door, and he pushes that big door button."
Team Foster’s Liermann is most proud of the fact that “we bridge the civilian-military divide. With less than 1 percent of our community serving, a chasm has developed. Much of our country believes our veterans are either door-kicking, Rambo-like heroes or broken and scary remnants of their former selves. The reality is that 90 percent of veterans fall squarely in the middle.”