LeAnne Hardy and Lori Eannes-Brooks first met at an Out of the Darkness Suicide Prevention walk a few years ago.

Both of their families had been affected by suicide, and they wanted to help make a difference.

Through their work, they learned 22 veterans die by suicide every day cross the nation.

They knew they had to do something to help.

It’s one reason that led them to start Stars, Stripes and Paws — a nonprofit rescue group serving Danville and Pittsylvania County that pairs companion animals with veterans.

“The best way is to not look nationally at what we can do to make our veterans’ lives better, but to look locally,” Hardy said.

They kept hearing the phrase “companion animals,” so they started doing research.

One woman described her husband to Hardy as an Operation Desert Storm veteran with post-traumatic stress disorder who struggles to leave the house by himself, even to go to the corner store for a pack of cigarettes.

The wife has to make sure someone is home with him if she has to go anywhere, so he isn’t trapped at home. Her only other option is to drag him along with her to doctor’s appointments, hair appointments and visits with friends.

“If he had a companion animal that spent the most time with him, that he took care of and fed and walked, she felt that that might give him something that he needed to feel comfortable to go back out in public more,” Hardy said.

Companion animals are defined animals that can help a person by giving companionship, which is different than a service animal.

Service animals are bred and go through intense training specifically to help disabled people and are allowed public access under the American Disabilities Act.

By contrast, companion animals are usually young shelter animals with good temperaments that go through manners training.

“It kind of just won a place in our heart, and we haven’t been able to let it go yet,” Hardy said. “Stars, Stripes and Paws’ main goal is to enhance the lives of our veterans, and of course rescue some animals and give them their fur-ever homes.”

More than two years after they first started the process, Stars, Stripes and Paws has its first dog ready to go into a home.

Dinah is a small, 1 year old, black and white terrier mix that came from the Pittsylvania Pet Center.

She wasn’t doing well in the shelter environment, but a staff member there thought she had potential to be a great companion animal because of her friendly manner with animals of all sorts and ability to walk on a leash.

Hardy and Eannes-Brooks quickly placed Dinah into a foster home, and put her through manners classes.

The pup excelled.

She is now crate trained, and social as can be.

She was 11 pounds when she was brought in, and six months later, she now weighs a healthy 26 pounds. Foster mom Lisa Augustyniak said she’s in charge of her foster brothers.

“I can leave them out during the day while I work, but her, I have to crate,” Augustyniak said. “It’s just too much chaos otherwise.”

They only ran into one problem with Dinah.

“She’s a little man-shy, which obviously if you’re dealing with veterans could be a potential issue,” Hardy said with a laugh. “We’re working on that now to ensure that when we do find someone ready for that companion animal, that if it is a male veteran, it won’t be a roadblock.”

Dogs are placed through an in-depth application and interview process, and there is no initial cost to the veteran.

Factors like personality, temperament, lifestyle and home environment are used to help match the veteran to the dog according to a brochure.

Once a match is made, the dog comes with a full array of veterinary care from shots to heartworm treatment to being spayed or neutered, as well as a crate, a bed and a small supply of dog food.

It’s also followed up with regular check-ins from Hardy and Eannes-Brooks, just in case.

“It gives us some eyes on the dog and veteran together and what they might need help on, or if they’re okay and stable together,” Hardy said.

They have high hopes for Dinah’s future, once they find the right veteran for her.

Because they are new, they are still working to find the veterans who need the dogs. The group’s brochures are now in the lobby of the Veterans Affairs Outreach Clinic in Danville, and they are meeting with local veterans groups to get their name out there.

“We knew the first placement would have its own growing pains because we’d never done it before,” Eannes-Brooks said. “So far, knock on wood, everything’s gone well.”

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Want to learn more?

Visit Stars, Stripes and Paws on Facebook, call LeAnne Hardy at (434) 688-1636 or email ssphero@yahoo.com

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Ceillie ​Simkiss reports for the Danville Register & Bee. Contact her at csimkiss@registerbee.com or (434) 791-7981.

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