CCV students, staff, faculty, and members of the community filled the CCV-Winooski lobby on Wednesday afternoon for “Hogs & Dogs,” a Veterans Day appreciation event organized in honor of CCV’s veteran and military students and their families. The event was also an opportunity for local organizations to share the work they do in support of veterans. CCV Now had a chance to check in with representatives from Vermont Paws & Boots, the Vermont Combat Veterans Motorcycle Association, the South Burlington Vet Center, and CCV’s own Veteran and Military Student Services team.
“She picked me,” says army veteran and CCV student Misha Pemble-Belkin. He’s talking about Meadow, who stands patiently by his side. Meadow is petite, probably no more than 40 pounds, with a shiny black coat and sincere brown eyes. She sports a tan vest proudly displaying her status as a certified Service Dog. She seems fiercely loyal, standing on her back legs to reach up and look into his eyes, or leaning into him as he speaks to fellow students. It’s immediately obvious that she is here in support of her human companion, but Pemble-Belkin explains that the relationship is reciprocal; she was brought to Vermont as a rescue from the southern U.S., and it’s fair to assume that their life together has been as much a blessing for her as it has been for him.
Pemble-Belkin found Meadow through the Vermont Paws & Boots Service Dog Program, which pairs military veterans and first responders with rescue dogs, and trains them to work together in support of one another. For two weeks after their meeting, Pemble-Belkin says, he and Meadow were tethered together. “You don’t break contact,” he says. After 260 hours of training with Meadow alongside Michelle LeBlanc, founder and head trainer at Vermont Paws & Boots, and nearly 18 months of living together, the dog is changing Pemble-Belkin’s life. He says she’s helped him slow down, feel safer, and feel more confident in public. Perhaps most importantly, she’s a kind of sentinel while he sleeps. When he first returned from Afghanistan, he was trying to get through each day with just about four hours of sleep. With Meadow by his side through the night, he can rest easier. And that, he says, affects everything.
Pemble-Belkin is finishing his last semester at CCV, and he plans to continue on to a bachelor’s degree in recreational therapy. He works with veterans through Vermont Adaptive Ski & Sports.
A Successful Transition
Marty McMahon is one of two Veteran and Military Resource Advisors at CCV. He says Wednesday’s event is an opportunity to honor CCV’s veteran and military-connected students, and also hopes it can be educational for students and community members who don’t have a military background. “The other piece of this that’s really important is that other people get to understand more about veterans, they get to understand about the therapy dogs and all the variety of services that are out there for veterans. I think this helps people become much more aware.”
McMahon’s daily efforts at the College are aimed at supporting veteran and active duty military personnel as they pursue their academic goals. A veteran himself, McMahon says the comprehensive services CCV offers this student population are essential. “Those services are important for [students] to make the transition from the military to civilian life, make the transition from the way the military operates to the way academic life is, and that’s sometimes difficult. But if they have the support, then it’s a transition that can be successful.”
Bikes for Benefit
Mike Gilhooly is one of a number of veterans from the Vermont Combat Veterans Motorcycle Association who are here to display a Harley-Davidson. The 2017 Softail Slim was donated to the Association by Governor Phil Scott, who is using proceeds from January’s inaugural gala to support veteran and military causes. Gilhooly and his fellow veterans will raffle off the bike; they hope to sell all 699 tickets, which go for $50 each, by Labor Day 2018. “All the proceeds are going to go to Veterans Affairs,” says Gilhooly. “Our particular chapter supports the transitional homeless veterans shelter in Northfield.” He notes that tightening federal support for veterans services makes his organization’s work increasingly important.
Gilhooly grew up in a military family, and lived in Germany, France, Belgium, Arkansas, Tennessee, and Texas before moving to Vermont. He is a veteran of the Vietnam War and has been with the Vermont Combat Veterans since 2008.
A Safe Haven
Joe Gilmond served 16 years of active duty for the U.S. Navy, and 10 years in the Vermont Army National Guard. Today, he works as an outreach specialist for the VA’s South Burlington Vet Center. The Vet Center provides comprehensive—and most, importantly, says Gilmond, confidential—services to veterans, active duty military members, and families. Resources include assistance with benefits, mental health counseling for individuals, couples, and families, and reintegration support. “Our vet center offers the ultimate privacy,” he says, “so when a combat vet and/or their family comes in for counseling, what is said stays behind closed doors—and that’s important to the veteran…we offer that safe haven, which is how the vet center was established by the Vietnam veterans—as a safe haven for combat veterans.”
“The work that the Vet Center does is incredibly important,” says Gilmond. “Especially for today’s veterans, as well as the Vietnam, the Korean, and the World War II [veterans], because of the combat stress that they’ve gone through…In particular, in our community, in our state, we need to be there for the combat veterans and their families.”