By Brendan Hickey
Jonathan Cooper returned to his home in Chicago after two military tours in the Middle East alive but injured. His back was broken and his mobility severely limited. With the help of a cane he was able to walk but fell constantly, injuring himself further. His disability ruled his life until he met Mira.
Mira needed help, too. A pit bull, she had been abandoned and was living in an animal shelter. She is big and strong, even by pit bull standards. Noticing her remarkable size and calm temperament, Pits for Patriots, rescued her, putting her to work.
Pits for Patriots, a Chicago-based veteran-assistance program, matches veterans and first-responders with physical and mental limitations with pit bulls in shelters. Each dog is trained with a specific a specific veteran’s disabilities in mind.
The time-intensive training process has paid off for Cooper and Mira, as well as dozens of other veterans and dogs. Mira was specifically trained for Cooper because of her size and ability to support him because of his stabilization issues.
“Mira is there for basically anything that I need,” Cooper said.
Joe Malikowski, a trainer for Pits for Patriots, said: “With Jon’s bad back he can’t move very well. Mira can retrieve stuff if he drops it, open doors and cabinets, zip zippers, really anything.”
The nonprofit organized a special showing of “Project 22,” released in April, at Muvico Cinema in Rosemont where Cooper and Mira attended. The film follows two combat-wounded veterans on a 6,500-mile, cross-country motorcycle trip to raise awareness of a shocking reality: An average of 22 American veterans lose their lives to suicide each day.
“I see PTSD and TBI (Traumatic Brain Injury) related mental health issues every day, but the movie opened my eyes to so much more than I even knew. As soon as we seen it, we were like, ‘Absolutely. Yes. We got to get the word out about this,’” Malikowski said.
While Pits for Patriots trains dogs to assist with physical limitations, many also help veterans with mental health issues like the ones discussed in the film.
“A lot of times it’s just about having that comforting touch,” said Jan Petrella, a volunteer. “Like a paw on your leg, or his head in your lap, or a little nudge or something. Just enough for the person with PTSD to think ‘Oh wait, I’m here with my dog, everything is OK.’ ”
Malikowski added, “I’ve seen guys who come back from [from military service] and they can’t even leave their house to buy groceries. Then I’ll see this same guy get one of the dogs and he’s out and about again because he knows someone’s watching his back.”
“With this, it’s not even about raising money,” he said. “We’ve got the same goal as the movie – trying to stop the 22 veterans a day from killing themselves in any way possible. Our way is just a little bit more specific.”
Screenings of the film are being organized around the country. To find one near you, check out the “Project 22” Facebook page. Learn more about Pits for Patriots at their website.