Albany Times Union

Dogs, vets help each other deal with stress

- By Terry Brown News of your troops and units can be sent to Times Union, Duty Calls, Terry Brown, Box 15000, Albany, NY 12212 or

A Navy veteran has found a lively way to keep post-traumatic stress at bay.

Richard Fazzone of Gloversvil­le experience­d a number of traumatic events while on Navy duty. That left him angry, isolated, and depressed at times.

He was his mother’s caregiver before she died and his dad died of COVID-19. The recent loss of his parents also impacted his life.

Fazzone turned to Operation At Ease, a nonprofit program in Rotterdam, that pairs shelter canines with deserving veterans and first responders.

Joni Bonilla, OAE founder, helped Fazzone adopt Gracie, a mutt, from the Hudson-mohawk Humane Society in Menands, earlier this year.

Since then, Bonilla, a certified dog trainer, and an intern, Danielle Gioielli, have been working with Fazzone and Gracie to turn the dog into a post-traumatic stress and light mobility service dog. Classroom sessions are at OAE, 203 Central Ave., Rotterdam.

Fazzone and other handlers in the program are assigned homework — training drills. They train in their homes and in urban settings such as malls, restaurant­s, parks crowded with people. Upon completion of the eight-month program, Fazzone and service dog in-training Gracie will have to pass two American Kennel Club tests and a public access test.

Fazzone has already started to benefit from the program.

“Not only have I rescued Gracie, Gracie has rescued me,” Fazzone said after a training session.

It was apparent; the two have bonded well and are affectiona­te to each other. Gracie is very quick at getting focused on Fazzone.

“Gracie has helped me a lot already and helps me deal with isolation, anxiety and depression,” he said before he took Gracie to a park under Bonilla’s guidance. “She helps calm me down. I am more active because of her. I experience less anxiety. When I feel down, she lifts me up.”

Gracie had issues, too. But the training has helped, for example end incessant barking, according to Bonilla. Bonilla has two other missions. She encourages people to drop certain words regarding veterans.

Regarding post-traumatic stress, Bonilla leaves out “disorder,” she said, as a way to rid stigma.

“Unfortunat­ely it is a long-held belief in our society that post-traumatic stress is a disorder,” she said. “At OAE we are working hard to stop the stigma associated with trauma and invisible wounds through outreach and community events. With proper treatment and interventi­on injuries can heal.”

The other mission is prompting an awareness that veterans are not disabled, they are deserving veterans, she says.

“Our veterans are deserving rather than disabled,” Bonilla says. “I think it’s is important to stop the stigma that veterans return home irrevocabl­y broken.”

Bonilla and her other trainers have successful­ly paired more than 100 handlers with rescued canines since she started the program in 2015. The program is free to deserving veterans, and first responders, including those with PTS, traumatic brain injury, injuries, and or wounds.

As a military spouse, she is very familiar with what military personnel as well as first responders must endure including battlefiel­d, violence and bad accident experience­s.

Bonilla is a certified trainer, AKC evaluator and has earned a degree in animal care from North Shore Community College, Lynn, Mass. She combined her education, personal experience­s and dog training to come up with ways dogs can be trained to help keep their owner’s post-traumatic stress at ease and or prevent relapses.

She had learned there are long wait lists and high costs for service dogs. That motivated her to found Operation At Ease.

The program is open to veterans, first responders and others who are dealing with post-traumatic stress that could be combat related, relating to sexual and other abuse as well as anything that’s traumatic, according to Bonilla.

To enroll in a future class, contact Joni Bonilla at 518-847-9941 or joni@operationa­

To help finance future service dog teams donations are needed. To make a donation, send checks to Operation At Ease, P.O. Box 9156, Schenectad­y, NY 12309.

Annual ride

The fourth annual PTS Awareness Ride for the benefit of OAE will be

held at noon Saturday, Aug. 20 at Spitzies, 1970 Central Ave., Colonie. Registrati­on for the motorcycle ride event will begin at 10 a.m. Kick stands go up at noon. Music, entertainm­ent, lunch, raffles and vendors are planned for the end of the motorcycle ride at the Nanola Restaurant, 2639 Route 9, Malta.

Donation is $20 per rider and $10 per passenger.

Coast Guard celebratio­n

The Coast Guard’s 232nd birthday will be celebrated by the Coast Guard Auxiliary at 10 a.m. Saturday aboard the USS Slater berthed at Broadway and Quay Street, Hudson River, Albany.

On Thursday and Saturday, Coast Guard veterans can tour the USS Slater, a World War II Navy destroyer escort, for free. The museum ship is open between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. Wednesdays to Sundays through Nov. 27.

Admission is $10 for adults, $9 for seniors, $8 for children and children younger than 5 are free.

During World War II Coast Guard members manned hundreds of Navy and Army vessels, including 30 destroyer escorts like the Slater. Slater and other escorts hunted enemy submarines, protected convoys to Europe, and delivered troops and supplies. Escorts battled U-boats in the Battle of the Atlantic.

 ?? Courtesy of Operation At Ease ?? Richard Fazzone prepares his canine companion Gracie for training at Operation At Ease in Rotterdam.
Courtesy of Operation At Ease Richard Fazzone prepares his canine companion Gracie for training at Operation At Ease in Rotterdam.

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