SRU veterans' group donates service dog to student

Steve Pancoast, left, president of the Slippery Rock University chapter of Student Veterans of America, is pictured with Heath Fishburn of New Castle, an SRU student-veteran who will be receiving a service dog from the group. Both men are Navy veterans.

There'll be a new face on the Slippery Rock campus next semester.

But rather than learning statistics and biology, Jasper will study his owner, Heath Fishburn, for symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder.

Specially trained by Dogs 4 Warriors, an Ohio-based non-profit, Jasper will join Fishburn at home, and in class, after the two complete their final session in January.

Today, Fishburn, a New Castle resident and 2008 Shenango High School graduate, will be recognized as part of the Veterans Day ceremony at the university. Initially, he was to be presented with his service dog at the ceremony, but the original animal selected for Fishburn developed behavioral issues and a replacement was found in Jasper who is still completing training. 

A white and tan furball, the collie comes into the Navy veteran's life through SRU's chapter of the Student Veterans of America.

For each of the past three years, the group has donated a service dog to a deserving student-veteran.

SRU veterans' group donates service dog to student

Jasper, pictured as a puppy, will become Heath Fishburn's service dog in January.

"We're getting ready to put out the info looking for our next recipient," said Steve Pancoast, president of the SVA and a Navy veteran, who estimates about 250 to 300 current SRU students are veterans.

Pancoast explained that to be eligible for consideration, student-veterans must have some sort of disability including combat-related injuries or mental health issues, such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). A board of advisors and faculty members then chose the annual recipient from the students, usually four or five, who submit applications.

"Dogs 4 Warriors prefers those with combat-related disabilities, which as we become more and more removed (from wartime) it becomes harder to find student-veterans in that category," explained Pancoast, a senior exercise science/pre-physician assistant major from Georgia who served 10 years in the Navy.

"While I wasn't in combat, I have deployment-related PTSD," explained Fishburn, who was stationed in Japan during the 2011 earthquake and tsunami, which resulted in nearly 20,000 deaths and caused the Fukushima nuclear accident.

"Yes, I have PTSD and go to counseling, but I never thought it warranted having a service dog. It's humbling to be chosen," continued the 29-year-old junior environmental geoscience major who served for four and a half years.

After the holidays, the veteran will spend time with Jasper in Ohio before the pair come home to New Castle, where the dog will become part of the family that also includes Fishburn's wife, Talia Shufeldt, also a Navy veteran and a senior exercise science/pre-physician assistant major at SRU, their 2-year-old daughter Genevieve and their two "pet dogs," a lab and a German shepherd-husky mix.

"I have to reconstruct my life around the service dog. It's not just a pet, it's a companion that will always be with me," Fishburn said.

When his training is complete, Jasper will be able pick up on subtle clues that his owner may be in a situation that may aggravate his PTSD.

"He's trained to recognize the warning signs of a panic attack," Fishburn explained, adding with a laugh, "He can open doors, turn on lights and pick up things, too. I don't need that, but it might be fun to have him do that anyway."

Pancoast said that while SVA does little formal fundraising for the service dog program, donors have made the effort "almost self-sustaining." SVA pays about $5,000 for each dog, he said.

"We're very fortunate to have the community's support," he continued, explaining that the SVA's big project is this semester is Military Appreciation Week while other efforts have focused on healthcare and community relations. The group is also collecting local veterans' stories for the Library of Congress.

"This room (the SVA office) builds community. We may have served at different times and in different branches, but there's an understanding. Everything we do is to help vets reintegrate when they come back, especially on campus where everyone is 18 or 20 years old and we're a little different. Plus, we like to dispel the rumors that all vets are crazy with PTSD," Pancoast said.

"There is a stigma that comes with PTSD," Fishburn added. "There's a lot more to it than violent flashbacks like in the movies. We're not all going to go grab a gun and hurt someone."

rgendreau@ncnewsonline.com

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