Gary Crispell often feels anxious. The University of Southern Mississippi Ph.D. student said it started when he was a Navy Seabee, with deployments to Iraq in 2008 and Okinawa in 2009-10.
Crispell, who is studying molecular biology, calls his feelings generalized anxiety disorder.
“I have issues with anxiety,” he said. “I work in a laboratory all day and I get anxious, even by myself.”
But Crispell recently got a little help to relieve his unease — a German Shepherd puppy through a new Paws for Patriots program at the Southern Miss Center for Military Veterans, Service Members and Families. The pure-bred puppy — named Major — was donated by Army veteran Dustin Simmons, who launched the program with his gift.
“We at the veterans center are continuing to focus on supporting the veterans who go to school here,” said center director Maj. Gen. Jeff Hammond, retired from the U.S. Army. “We were sitting around talking about our experiences in the service with working dogs, particularly with beagles and German Shepherds, and wouldn’t it be great if we could create a program that could continue that experience?
“We got a call — boom! The whole thing came together. We’d match a student veteran with a working dog donated by a caring, military-friendly family.”
The Paws for Patriots program is the first of its kind in Mississippi. It identifies individuals in the community interested in donating a dog to student veterans and their families.
The program is in addition to a host of services the center offers to student veterans, including scholarships, career help, transition assistance and a textbook loan system. A program matching dogs and student veterans seemed like the next natural fit.
Dogs have a long history in warfare, starting in ancient times. They’ve been trained in combat for use as scouts, sentries and trackers and are used frequently in today’s military.
“In the military, you tend to be around the working dog,” Hammond said. “You always see the German Shepherd at post on base.
“You’ll see the beagles when you’re deploying. When you’re in the military, you always have a soft spot for dogs.”
Hammond said soldiers in Iraq would befriend the dogs that ran the streets and were often killed by citizens.
“(The dogs) would provide them protection and security,” he said. “There are no rules with dogs. They love you no matter what.”
That unconditional love is why Hammond thought it was such a good idea when Simmons contacted the center about donating a puppy to a student veteran.
“Some of these kids, when they leave the military and come to college, they come with anxieties,” he said. “They’re trying to fit in. That dog can help out.
“We find these pets are a wonderful blessing. They are a close friend that helps with the adjustment.”
Dogs in military roles are often referred to as working dogs. Retired working dogs are often adopted as pets or therapy animals and prove to be the best of companions for service members and veterans.
That relationship is the case for Crispell and Major.
“I’d say it takes my mind off a lot of things,” he said. “Having the responsibility to take care of him from the age of four or five weeks — it doesn’t feel like responsibility. It’s a rewarding-type thing.”
Major weighed only 7 pounds when Crispell picked him out. He’s 32 pounds now.
“(Simmons) let me come a day or two after (the puppies) were born and he let me have the pick of the litter,” Crispell said. “I think it’s really nice of him.
“There’s no reason he had to do that. It was nice of him to be thinking it might help another veteran.”
Simmons lives in the Pine Belt, but works in North Dakota in the gas industry. The Hattiesburg American contacted him several times for comment, but he was unavailable.
Upon hearing he was receiving a dog, Crispell exclaimed, “We are proud and honored to be the first recipient of a working dog under the auspices of the ‘Paws for Patriots’ program!”
Hammond said the center is already working on the transfer of a second dog from a military-friendly owner to a student-veteran.
“In the military, you always had someone watching your back,” he said. “Then you enter the academic environment and you don’t know who’s who.
“But you can always trust a good dog.”
For information on Paws for Patriots, call 601-264-4629 or go to www.usm.edu/military-veterans