The chill wind made my eyes tear at the starting line. The cold didnât stop me from joining more than 100 athletes and about a dozen service dogs who came to run for an unforgettable cause: honoring veterans.
A bearded young man at the front of the pack would run with a full-size American flag. âThe flag comes first here,â said Run to Remember 5K race director Dan Durham to the athletes. âIf you want to pass the person at the front, you tap him and heâll give you the flag. We honor our country first. And the last person on the course will carry the POW-MIA flag. We donât leave anyone behind. We donât forget.â
Remembering was a theme at the 5K footrace put on by Cache Valley Veterans Association in North Loganâs Elk Ridge Park. Hundreds of supporters came to enjoy free pancakes, take part in raffle drawings, or visit with canine companions that came with their handlers. I walked among the servicemen and women, asking why people would gather in a park despite the biting cold.
Durham pointed to his reason â a man standing behind the photo-lined tables under a ramada. Durham identified Josh Hunter, one of the first people in Cache Valley to participate in the budding Veterans Service Animal Program. Hunter volunteered to help earn funds for the program at the event. He received a dog from an animal rescue earlier this year. Hunter and his dog go to training sessions together that help the dog qualify as a service animal and help Hunter learn to be a competent handler. The process helps Hunter adjust to civilian life in multiple ways, the most obvious being that he keeps his companion animal after the training is complete. Durham describes the relationship between Hunter and his dog as amazing.
âYou can see the difference in Joshâs eyes. And the dog is just happy to have someone and, frankly, to be alive. We take these dogs off of whatâs essentially death row. I mean, we literally rescued one dog from a meat factory in China. Itâs a cool thing to save a dog and help a vet at the same time.â Durham described the new program as, âa no cost to the veteran service where we utilize rescued dogs, adopt them, and pair them with a veteran who needs a service dog. We make that connection, pay for the training and any other support the owner might need us to provide; like dog food or leashes. The program is just getting off the ground, but itâs going great.â
Durham said the program models others in Salt Lake County where dogs are being used to help veterans cope with depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, or adjustment and socialization. Ultimately, the program hopes to reduce the number of veteran suicides in our area. âOn average, 22 servicemen or women take their own lives every day in the United States,â Durham said to the crowd prior to the race. âIn Utah those numbers are higher than average. We want to change that.â
According to a 2001 study by RAND Corporation, nearly one-third of all service members may experience symptoms of a mental health disruption. Cache Valley Veterans Association CEO Phil Redlinger said that is part of the reason he formed the association in 2015. âPrior to that time, the mobile Vet Center came here a few days a week, and that was it. The ultimate goal for the association is to have a one-stop veterans resource center in Utah. It would be the first of its kind in the state.â
âThereâs a big veterans community here in the valley, well over 10,000,â said association board member and dog handler Greg Auer. âMost people donât know we have that many.â Auer said some veterans have trouble finding work and adjusting to civilian life. So, another goal for the association is to provide a support system. âItâs a challenge going from active duty,â Auer said. âWhen you get thrown back into being a civilian, the transition is hard. Qualifications you had in the military may not transfer in a civilian job. Itâs hard to find people who relate to you âŚ In your unit with your team leaders, youâre really tight, like blood family … When you come back home, itâs hard to express how you feel. Itâs hard to relate.â
Redlinger explained that military exercises have clear missions. When soldiers return to civilian life, they need to find a personal cause to support. Many veterans thrive on service opportunities for other veterans and the larger community. Finding purpose and acceptance in the civilian world is a step in the right direction.
âRemember those that served or that are serving,â he said. âVeterans Day historically has always been about bringing our troops home. But today our veterans are looking at things like getting back and being part of a community. We have veterans that want to be part of something again.â
Passing by photos of the fallen veterans that line the tables and reading their biographies, I reflected upon whether the veterans association is accomplishing its goals. Women and men stood in various uniforms, camouflage, or exercise clothing. They were laughing, embracing, serving, and supporting one another. As I studied them, applause sounded near the finish line. An iron-haired man wearing a World War II cap and a leather jacket walked under the arches carrying the black POW-MIA flag. The last to complete the 5K that day, he made sure none of his fellow service members were forgotten.
Kate E Anderson is a mother of five living in North Logan. She can be reached at email@example.com