Portland companion dog program makes a difference for military veterans

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WESTBROOK — Bob Charest never leaves the house without his faithful friend, Maggie, by his side.

Maggie has a job to do when the two are out and about: keeping Charest calm, centered and able to cope with being in public.

Maggie is a dog; she and Charest were one of the first matches made by the Portland chapter of Pets for Vets three years ago. Their relationship only continues to grow stronger with every year that passes.

“She’s a godsend,” Charest said. “She calms me down and goes everywhere with me, even church and the grocery store. I have severe trust issues, but she’s in tune with me and makes me more confident. She’s always looking out for me.”

Although he grew up in Portland, Charest now lives in Westbrook and his adult son lives nearby in Gorham.

He was a standout athlete at Cheverus High School in both football and baseball, and received scholarship offers from the University of Maine, Holy Cross and Boston College. But with a family history of serving in the military, Charest decided instead to join the U.S. Marine Corps.

Charest was part of a reconnaissance unit in the lead-up to the Vietnam War, which included a secret mission to Laos, among other assignments. He jumped out of planes and learned to operate with little backup.

After serving from 1958-1962, Charest tried to return to a normal life. He married and worked for a while, but suffered from undiagnosed post traumatic stress, or PTSD, and found himself unable to function.

“I’ve had PTSD for years and finally went to the VA for help,” he said. He’s now in counseling, and it was during a meeting of the local Marine Corps League several years ago that he first met Tom Targett, director of Pets for Vets in Portland.

Charest said the process of getting Maggie into his life was similar to adopting a child. He went through several interviews, Pets for Vets volunteers did a home visit and there was also a lot of discussion about what type of dog would be best for him.

Charest is able to get around, but with bad knees he has to be careful how he moves. Maggie, who is a 43-pound pointer and border collie mix, makes Charest laugh, is good company, and “she helps me sleep better at night,” he said.

Like all the dogs selected for Pets for Vets, Maggie came from a shelter and was trained to be a companion animal. Recalling the first time he met Maggie, Charest said “she jumped right in my lap and licked my face.”

Targett, who is also a veteran and a dog lover, started the Pets for Vets chapter in 2013, because with three dogs of his own he was fully aware of their therapeutic value, particularly for veterans.

According to the Pets for Vets website, the national nonprofit began matching shelter dogs with veterans after the founder learned that “companion animals significantly improve mental and physical health, including reducing stress, depression and anxiety, (which are) symptoms experienced by many serving in the military.

Anyone interested in learning more about Pets for Vets, making a donation or volunteering should go online to petsforvets.com/portland-me.

“Our goal is to help heal the emotional wounds of military veterans by pairing them with a shelter dog that is specially selected to match his or her personality,” the Pets for Vets website says. “It’s win-win. Needy shelter dogs receive a second chance at life while giving our returning troops a second chance at health and happiness.”

And, Targett said, “Dogs have an incredible awareness and can sense mood swings and be there for the veteran during those times when a friend is needed who doesn’t judge.”

The adoption and training fees for the dogs are all paid for by Pets for Vets. To help defray those costs the local chapter is planning a fundraiser at Mast Landing Brewing Co. in Westbrook on Saturday, Feb. 4, for an afternoon of yoga and beer.

From 12:30-1:30 p.m. enjoy a yoga class (bring your own mat) and then stick around and try some locally brewed beer.

Kate Irish Collins can be reached at 710-2336 or kcollins@theforecaster.net. Follow Kate on Twitter: @KirishCollins.

U.S. Marine Corps veteran Bob Charest of Westbrook with his companion dog, Maggie. She was given to him by the Portland chapter of Pets for Vets.

Maggie, a companion dog, makes life better and less stressful for her owner, Bob Charest, a former Marine.

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