Saving Lives (Times Two)

Vets like Vic Martin, USN, Retired — shown here with his service dog, Mia — see the benefits of nonprofit Shelter to Soldier as a lifesaver.


There’s Riddler the Labrador and Marlow the Lab mix, Benny the cattle dog and Penny …  well, your guess is as good as any. Each of those dogs, yearning for a life of purpose in a forever home, has been caged with a clock ticking. Despite impassioned efforts to bring the number to zero, some 1.2 million dogs are euthanized every year in the United States.

And there are people like Vic Martin, a Navy veteran with depression so deep he hadn’t left his house in six months. People like the Marine Corporal who suffered a brain injury after a roadside bomb went off feet away from his Humvee. Like too many others, they came home with poisoned souvenirs of war: post-traumatic stress disorder, traumatic brain injury. And the nightmares. Oh, were there nightmares.

Shelter to Soldier, a nonprofit organization co-founded by Kyrie (Baca) Bloem ’10 (BA) and her husband, Graham, trains dogs from local rescues as service companions and matches them with military veterans in need.

Each day, an average of 20 veterans and active duty members of the United States military take their own life. And every year, 1.2 million dogs are put down because of medical or behavioral problems — or simply because there is no place for them to live. The need is mutual. “It’s what we mean by ‘saving lives two at a time,’” Bloem says.

Martin “lived on his couch and was afraid to go to the mailbox,” Bloem recalls. “When he arrived, he was shaking and stuttering so badly we could barely understand him.”

He was matched with Kira, a pit-bull mix, and when she retired, Mia, a chocolate lab, became Vic’s companion.

“I wish there was something more I could say than ‘thank you’ to Shelter to Soldier,’ Martin says, who created the organization’s logo and now serves as its director of veteran services. “I am so very grateful for the gift they have given me. It is my life.”

Bloem, who earned USD degrees in Spanish and biology as well as a master’s in nutritional science from SDSU, met Graham while working at a pet resort. It didn’t take long before their shared love of animals was coupled with a mutual desire to give back.

That meeting of the minds resulted in the founding of Shelter to Soldier in 2012. Graham is president and training director; Kyrie serves as the organization’s vice president and director of operations. Bloem says she and co-founder Krys Holc ’87 (BBA) manage the organization’s myriad administrative demands.

“There’s a lot,” Bloem says with a laugh. “Community outreach, donor outreach, grant writing, event planning and volunteer recruitment … we definitely wear lots of hats, but we have an amazing team. It is so worth it to see the difference we’re making.”

Soldier to Shelter became especially relevant after the Veterans Administration cut funding for psychiatric service dogs. Bloem says service dogs can cost up to $35,000. “And this is a population that just can’t afford that.”

Bloem admits the process for turning a shelter dog into a service dog and finding a good soldier match can be lengthy as well as pricey.

“Once we identify a dog as a good candidate to be a service animal, there’s a nine- to 12-month training period for the dog, and then another six months of training with the dog and the veteran they’re matched with.”

To date, Shelter to Soldier has matched 23 vets with dogs; 17 more are in training. Bloem says among the organization’s goals is a facility to serve as temporary quarters for veterans from across the nation to live in while they learn dog handling.

“We want to increase the number of dogs we place, because the positive change in the lives of both the veterans is real. We’ve seen it. And we’ve seen it again and again.” — Timothy McKernan

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