WINDBER, Pa. (CBS4) – Nearly after a decade after being honorably discharged, a 33-year-old Iraq War veteran is still struggling to fit back into his hometown.
John Gerula signed up for the Marines at the age of 18, two weeks after working as a first responder during the September 11 attacks, later being deployed to Iraq and fighting in “Operation Phantom Fury.”
He survived numerous IED explosions.
Gerula returned home suffering from a traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress disorder.
“It’s tough trying to fit back into a society where veterans are having a hard time getting back in,” Gerula told CBS News. “It’s easy to put the uniform on, but it’s very hard to get back in society when you have been doing that for so long.”
He receives weekly counseling at a nearby VA facility, but, still, “it’s been hard,” he said. “Coming back … there’s not much support when it comes to veterans.”
One group, though, American Humane, is coming through for Gerula, and someone else, in a way no other organization can.
The non-profit is a Shelter to Service program that rescues homeless pets from across the country and trains them to become service dogs for veterans.
Gerula’s new best friend, Oliver, is a one-and-a-half-year-old terrier mix rescued from a shelter in Colorado.
After three months of training, the dog was finally able to meet his new owner last week.
“It was an emotional experience. Me and him clicked right away,” Gerula said. “He started giving me hugs. We were a match from the first minute I touched his leash.”
Amy McCullough, Ph.D., is the national director of military affairs at American Humane. She recalls the day she recruited Oliver.
“He was standing there in his kennel, looking beautiful. He had been there for over two months with no one taking a look at him. I brought him out. I met him. He was sweet, sensitive, so attuned to humans that he was the best candidate there.”
Monday, Gerula took Oliver home to Pennsylvania, where he has an acre yard to run when he’s not standing by John while he works in his wood shop or volunteers at the local fire department.
“He’ll go everywhere with me. He’s very welcome at the fire department. They can’t wait to meet him. They say he’s the firehouse mascot.”
Three veterans, including Gerula, have been placed with service dogs so far through American Humane. McCullough hopes that number will increase fourfold next year.