How one physical therapy student is combining her love of dogs with her reserve-duty military status to serve the veteran community.
With Veterans Day just around the corner, and a full slate of “Veterans Week” activities scheduled here at CUW, it’s the time of year we think most about those who have served our country.
But veterans deserve honor and respect throughout the year. And with so many of them in need of a little extra help and support, it’s especially important to reach out when opportunity knocks—or inspiration strikes.
One person who is answering that call in a special way is Brianna Neumeyer. This first-year physical therapy student and first lieutenant in the Army National Guard is actively seeking opportunities to support vets with Sage, one of CUW’s very own comfort dogs.
The idea to serve this way was her own, one that came naturally through her desire to help, her love of dogs, and her dedication to the military. She understands that the sacrifices she’s been asked to make are very small compared to those made by many other veterans.
“When I think about it, I’ve given up like some birthdays, holidays, stuff like that,” Brianna says. “But what some of these vets have given up …. Some, they didn’t do it for a college education, they did it to be patriotic, to keep their families safe, to keep their friends safe. So, even providing something as simple as a comfort dog for whatever event they might be at, it’s just kinda cool.”
Most recently, Brianna took Sage to an Honor Flight event, where veterans from different wars were boarding a plane to Washington, D.C., to be honored at various war memorials there. It can be a very emotional, and even sometimes painful event for veterans. Having a well-trained dog work its magic can help a lot.
“It’s crazy, just having Sage there makes it so easy to just bond with people you’ve never met before,” Brianna says. “At the Honor Flight, I could see people’s faces light up when they saw him, so it was really easy to tell who wanted me to bring him over so they could pet him. And they’re petting him, and they’re talking about their pets at home, and whatever else, and it leads to us talking about what they did in the military.
“I don’t know how many vets there may have known each other prior to the event, but when there’s a dog between them, they’re like ‘Aw, he’s so cute! He looks just like my dog at home!’ Then they’re talking the rest of the trip to D.C., then who knows—best friends for life?”
Brianna works with Sage as part of the Animal Assisted Therapy (AAT) certificate program—the first such program in Wisconsin—in conjunction with her Doctor of Physical Therapy (DPT) program. The AAT program is managed by Dr. Lois Harrison, associate professor of physical therapy, who explains that they work with the Lutheran Church Charities (LCC) and their Kare 9 Military Ministry® to reach out to veterans. The Kare 9 Military Ministry dogs and their trained veteran handlers visit a wide variety of veteran charities, events, and activities to help spread the mercy and compassion of Christ Jesus.
“Brianna has fully embraced this role and is looking forward to the many ways she and Sage can serve veterans in the future,” Harrison says. “It’s great to see one of our dogs being used in this manner.”
Keith Casey, CUW’s director of veterans services, is also impressed with the work Brianna has been doing.
“We have a motto, both in Ann Arbor and here, that we’re about veterans helping veterans,” Casey says. “Brianna is actively serving, and she’s taking this course with Sage, and she’s reaching out to different veteran organizations in the Greater Milwaukee area to utilize Sage as a comfort dog to really help vets.
“I think it’s a great initiative and it just shows once again, how military-friendly and veteran-friendly we are as a university. We always try to find the best ways to support veterans in any need or capacity that we can.”
Brianna and Sage’s next service opportunity will be at one of the Veteran Services department’s Veterans Week activities. In partnership with the School of Social work, students will be meeting with veterans at Vets Place Central in Milwaukee, a veterans transitional housing facility, on Tuesday, November 9. Brianna and Sage will be there to help break the ice.
“You don’t really know what’s affecting your veterans unless they actually talk about it,” Brianna says. “And that’s the thing about having comfort dogs: It breaks down barriers between people. They say it’s having like a non-judgmental person to talk to.”
Eventually, once she’s earned her degree, she hopes to be in a physical therapy practice that regularly employs therapy dogs—while also providing much-needed access to veterans. “That’s where these ‘worlds collide’ for me,” she says.
“One of the things that I want to do is to make physical therapy more accessible to veterans, or soldiers who are currently serving,” Brianna says. “Because they don’t always have the greatest access to services like that. By completing the AAT program, I’ll be able to have comfort dogs in a practice like that, which would be great.”
In the meantime, with ongoing support from Dr. Harrison and Veteran Services department, Brianna hopes to continue to find new ways to serve the veteran community—both on campus and within the larger community—even as she finishes her DPT degree.
“Brianna is very personable, has an air of confidence around her, and has shown great compassion and leadership ability,” Casey says. “In other words, she’s been a wonderful representation of what we’re all about here at Concordia when it comes to serving our deserving veterans.”
— This story is written by Mike Zimmerman, corporate communications manager for Concordia University Wisconsin. He may be reached at email@example.com or 262-243-4380.
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