By Erika Webb
Battlegrounds come in many forms. They are in foreign lands where young soldiers lose their lives or suffer so much trauma the lives they bring back don't seem worth living.
Daily battles are waged on the streets where unwanted animals live, scavenging for food and in want of medical attention, love and shelter. Their best hope often is a sterile facility where at least the pain of trying to live is stopped.
Too often battlefields are homes inhabited by young children, many of whom grow up without the right kind of care and wind up in the justice system.
Matthew Sviben spent 23 years in the U.S. Army, three tours in Iraq and two in Afghanistan.
"Initial invasions, good times," he said with an edge.
He is 45 years old, or as he likes to put it, "22 with 23 years of experience."
Mr. Sviben jokes around a lot. Raw pain seeps through the banter.
In today's world, video games have become reality, he said.
Retired in 2012, part of Mr. Sviben's career cache includes mild traumatic brain injuries, which are typically from explosions, "IEB's hitting the vehicles," he explained.
He looked at several programs for veterans to adopt companion dogs, but he said many of them had a daunting application process, including 50-page forms to fill out.
Mr. Sviben's mother heard about Paws of Freedom on the news and contacted Jennifer Muni-Satoff, a mental health social worker at the Veterans Administration Daytona Beach Clinic.
Prison Pups N Pals, a collaborative effort between Tomoka Correctional Institution, Halifax Humane Society and the West Volusia Kennel Club, aims to save lives. So does its offshoot, Paws of Freedom, which utilizes the original program to help veterans by training dogs for placement with them.
Started in 2010, Prison Pups N Pals follows others like it throughout the Florida Prison system.
It's designed to provide a "no kill" alternative for shelter dogs to have a second chance at a good life. Beyond that, training and caring for the animals is a way for inmates positively contribute to society and potentially reap the mental and spiritual benefits of service. Many have not experienced the unconditional love and bond they may find with the animal in their care. Prison Pups N Pals has the power to heal, more than just one being.
Marj Blomquist and Allyn Weigel are members of the West Volusia Kennel Club and co-founders of Pups N Pals. Mr. Weigel also is a U.S. Army Korean War veteran.
In 2011, the Veterans Administration adopted Paws of Freedom into its 2011 VA Innovation Program upon Ms. Muni-Satoff recommendation.
Prison Pups N Pals dogs spend seven weeks training with the inmates to learn basic obedience as well as commands to heel, sit, down and come. They also do basic rally and agility training.
The goal is to place healthy, spayed/neutered dogs in forever homes as well as give inmates skills they can list on their resumes, according to the Florida Department of Corrections website. All dogs are given the American Kennel Club Good Citizen Test and after the dogs have passed the test, their trainers are presented with an AKC certificate for their successful training efforts. Adoptive owners are offered a free seven-week training course by the West Volusia Kennel Club to become familiar with what the dog has been taught.
Ms. Blomquist and Mr. Weigel started the first class with five dogs. They train the inmates to train the animals, nearly all of which are mixed breed dogs from Halifax Humane Society.
"Now we have two men (inmates) who are instructors for the class," Ms. Blomquist said. "They're excellent."
She said it has been her "joy" to work with the inmates at Tomoka. She doesn't see their misdeeds.
"I love these guys like they're my kids," Ms. Blomquist said. "They're somebody's son. I want to teach them things they can use on the outside."
Before entering the program the inmate-trainers are psychologically evaluated.
"They're quiet when they first come in," Ms. Blomquist said, "but they develop such an attachment to the animals and work well together as a group."
She said the inmates often cry when the animals leave.
Working with the dogs helps them release emotions and grow with their trainees, she explained. They feel a sense of accomplishment, and pride begins to fill the space where none remained.
"One of the fellows told me ... I gave him a compliment one day ... and he told me, 'You know ... nobody has ever told me I did anything well,'" Ms. Blomquist said.
The adoption rate is nearly 100 percent.
"What's great is a lot are spoken for before graduation," she said. "A lot of the inmates' families adopt dogs and many are adopted by employees at the prison. Some take more than one."
The training process for veteran companion dogs is a little different than for the other dogs.
They are trained for 14 rather than seven weeks, and often are taught a behavior called "place," trained to move in front of the veteran "because sometimes (the veterans) are threatened or made uncomfortable by someone coming toward them," Ms. Blomquist explained.
"I just stay away from people, so I don't have to worry about that," Mr. Sviben said.
Many veterans don't want to leave their homes, but having the trained companion dog helps with that, Ms. Blomquist said.
The dogs also are trained to retreat under the table at outdoor eating facilities.
Once veterans are signed into the program, they go to Tomoka and work with the inmate-trainers and their chosen dog.
Mr. Sviben's dog, Davey, a four-year-old boxer bulldog mix, recently graduated from the program.
"He had early graduation because we were doing so well," his new owner said.
After he was approved by the VA, Mr. Sviben went to the prison to choose a dog. Sometimes things happen the other way around.
"Davey ran up to me and put his head in my lap," Mr. Sviben said, "Sold!"
Having Davey has provided him with companionship -- he added the word camaraderie -- as well a different sense of responsibility, one that is met with gratitude.
"You have something else to rely on you. You're not only that soldier in the field anymore," Mr. Sviben said.
He enjoyed working with the inmates.
"They were nice guys, they just made the wrong decision," he said.
And then, in his customary joking manner, "I feel good that my tax dollars are at work," he said laughing.
But he's seriously grateful.
"The guys are really good, really seem to care. They're learning a skill, a sense of responsibility," Mr. Sviben said.
On a recent Thursday, the guys and their dogs were being put through their paces at the Tomoka Work Camp.
Pups N Pals Coordinator Officer Gail Irwin, Ms. Blomquist, Mr. Weigel and Ms. Muni-Satoff watched and encouraged.
Inmate Kono Washington looked down at his trainee, a gentle bulldog mix with an incessantly wagging tail. She sees Mr. Washington in a way many might not. To her, he is a hero. So is his training partner, lead trainer Steven Francis who encouraged her to smile using a high-pitched dog talk voice. Neither inmate can contain his love for this animal. And it shows in her behavior.
"She's good. She thinks she's a cat," Mr. Francis said laughing.
"Sometimes when I can't sleep, I get up and play with her," Mr. Washington said. "I talk to the dog more than I talk to anybody."
The dogs sleep in crates at the head of the inmates' beds.
"Yeah, I just talk to her when I get lonely," Mr. Francis said.
"It kinda helps doin' time and takes a lotta stress off you," Mr. Washington said. "It gets emotional (when the dogs graduate and leave) because you get attached to 'em."
Officer Irwin was chosen by Tomoka Assistant Warden of Programs Angela Gordon.
The tiny officer with the big heart downplays her role, but her eyes reveal her passion for the program.
She praised Mr. Washington, saying he'll soon move from assistant to lead trainer.
"I walk by him and he's reading dog books," she said proudly.
Ms. Muni-Satoff said the program's effectiveness is astounding.
"We're seeing a 43 percent reduction in mental health visits among veterans who receive companion dogs," she said. "Avoidance and emotional detachment are symptoms of PTSD. These dogs bring out all sorts of feelings. They put you in a position to have to deal with feelings. That's huge."
Maggie is a tiny mixed breed dog with a very sweet nature. Her tucked tail and tendency to back away tell enough of her story that one wouldn't want to know the rest.
But in a very short time, she's coming around.
Her trainers, William Surface and Pelman Arnold, employ patience and they don't indulge her fears.
Mr. Arnold, a big, gentle man held her lead.
Mr. Surface rubbed her neck playfully when she appeared afraid.
Soon, her ears were up and her tail wagged.
"She's come a long way," Mr. Arnold said.
The same could be said for him.