Providing comfort to the troops

When a service member deploys for service, or returns to home, they experience emotions that range from anticipation to despair. And for many, the sight of a dog is a comfort in itself and the act of petting it provides a glimpse of happiness.

Hampden residents Cheryl and Ron Lare’s two therapy Shih Tzu dogs, Opie and Skylar, have provided that happiness and comfort to troops returning and heading out.

And the dogs love every moment, they noted.

Opie (left) and Skylar (right) wait patiently for troops to arrive at Bangor International Airport in 2013.

The Shih Tzu’s didn’t start their therapy work at the Bangor International Airport. They started working as therapy dogs at Phillip Strickland House, in elementary schools and libraries. The role of a therapy dog is to enhance the health and well-being of people ranging from children to seniors.

According to Therapy Dogs International, it has been clinically proven that the acts of petting, touching and talking with animals helps with well-being, relieves stress, and ease symptoms of depression. So it makes sense that therapy dogs are being used to help soldiers returning or leaving in service of our country.

Skylar had a rough start to life. At 14 months old, he was found with a broken jaw and broken ribs and the Lare’s took him in to live with them and their other Shih tzu, Opie. The two dogs are the same age, 7 years old, and are buddies, Cheryl said.

Ron’s an Air Force veteran himself, and understands the valuable role that his pup plays in his life. So once they learned about the use of therapy dogs as troop greeters, they decided it was a service they could provide to other veterans and active duty troops.

And the response from soldiers to these small, quiet dogs is heartwarming.

“When you see grown men crying and these two dogs just sitting there licking away the tears, it’s very interesting to hear the comments people make,” Cheryl said.

Opie and Skylar have their own uniforms, Cheryl and Ron noted. Patches with their likeness adorn the tan jackets the dogs wear when they’re “on duty.” ┬áThat could include late at night, early in the morning, or mid-day.

“They want the dogs,” Cheryl said. “And you just can’t refuse it. It’s become a passion of ours.”

And that passion extends the dogs. While they don’t know the soldier’s stories, they do know that they need to provide some TLC. And they do it simply by waiting patiently and sitting quietly.

Ron related a story about a recent encounter with a soldier that was at Bangor International Airport. The chaplain had sought out the Lare’s and asked them to keep a watchful eye on one soldier.

“Tears were running down his face,” Ron said. “Three days before he came home, he recovered his best friend’s body and hadn’t talked to anyone since then.” The next thing they knew, the soldier asked if he could talk to them and hold the dogs.

The good that therapy dogs can do for soldiers who struggle with overwhelming feelings is accented by the work of the Bangor Troop Greeters. Since May 2003, Maine Troop Greeters have greeted over 6,800 flights with more than 1,400,000 service members and 359 military dogs. And the dedicated volunteers who form the troop greeters will be there as long as troops are deployed.

According to the Maine Troop Greeter website, “The mission of the Maine Troop Greeters is to express the nation’s gratitude and appreciation to the troops, for those going overseas for a safe return and for those returning for a joyful homecoming and to make their (hopefully brief) stay in Bangor as comfortable and pleasant as possible.”

And while Opie and Skylar are important members of the troop greeter family, their skills as therapy dogs are also appreciated by the children and adults who encounter them at schools and senior centers and retirement homes.