BUFFALO, N.Y. (WIVB) — When Christopher Kreiger returned from Iraq in 2004, he faced many setbacks on the home front — including a traumatic brain injury and the loss of his house. Three years later, the U.S. Army veteran decided he was going to help his fellow servicemembers.
“In the beginning, I started out sitting on street corners in my car and just posting on social media that, ‘Today, we’re at this corner if you’re a veteran, or the family of a veteran, and need assistance,'” Kreiger said.
On those street corners, WNY Heroes was born. The nonprofit organization has since turned into something Kreiger could never imagine. What started as financial assistance is now eight different grant programs serving veterans across 14 counties.
“We have this new establishment, our own service dog training school, our own mental health providers, case workers — you name it,” Kreiger said. “It has clearly come a long way.”
Kreiger believes the volunteers are the backbone of WNY Heroes.
“Without our volunteers to help out with the food drive that we had going for three years, or to help out with our events, or just help out with things that we have going on here around the facility, we wouldn’t be able to have the success that we have today,” Kreiger said. “We owe that all to our volunteers, but more so even the sponsors who believe in us, and get behind us, and back us, and want to truly make sure that we’re successful.”
That includes neighbors Jim Schaller and Tom Mach.
“Well, it was a nice neighborhood and then he moved in,” Mach joked.
They’re both U.S. Army veterans who served during the Vietnam War. The two Purple Heart recipients bond over a number of shared experiences, including seeing the Bob Hope Show in Cu Chi with Ann-Margaret — something they were particularly excited to talk about. They also bond over their time volunteering at WNY Heroes.
“Being with other veterans or people that love veterans is the best thing for me. That’s my therapy,” Schaller said. “It’s being with other people that have walked in your shoes and that have been there. Here at WNY Heroes, we have that.”
Schaller and Mach have been volunteering at the organization for years. Mach agreed with Schaller’s sentiment in that they do it for the comfort felt being among their brothers and sisters-in-arms.
“I never really talked a whole lot about stuff from Vietnam,” Mach explained. “You start hanging out with other veterans and you find out a lot of things in common. There’s things you can laugh about and things you can cry about.”
“When they talk to another veteran, they don’t have to explain,” Mach’s wife, Cheryl, said. “They know just where they are, where they were and what was happening. I think it’s good for all of them.”
Schaller also found comfort in the form of a dog. His life changed when he was introduced to Lucy through Pawsitive for Heroes – WNY Heroes’ service dog program for veterans with service-related disabilities.
“When I was over in Vietnam, I was out in the jungle every day and we found a stray dog about [Lucy’s] size. This dog traveled everywhere with us on the Huey helicopters, into hot landing zones and everything, and was a comfort to all our guys… I think that’s why I wanted a smaller dog, to comfort me for my PTSD,” Schaller said. “I can’t thank WNY Heroes enough for this program. It has literally saved veterans’ lives, I know it has.”
Pawsitive for Heroes is a partnership with county and state correctional facilities where inmates help train the dogs before they’re paired with their veteran handlers.
“It’s a huge turning point for them, as well,” Kreiger said. “Knowing that what they’re doing is truly going to help a veteran who served our country.”
Kreiger started the program in 2012 after he got a service dog of his own.
“Knowing the change that it did make for me — I wasn’t contemplating suicide, I was going to see my doctor less, I was coming off of meds, I was getting back out and reacclimating into society the best I could,” Kreiger said. “That’s when I knew if it worked for me, it’s gotta work for everyone else.”
The dogs are named after fallen soldiers – keeping their memory alive. They’re primarily rescued from the SPCA or other local rescues, though they also work with breeders.
“Being able to take that puppy from 8 weeks, 10 weeks old, and mold that dog into what we’re going to need that dog to do at the end of 16 to 18 months, and watch that veteran’s life be forever changed is something very special,” Kreiger said.
Kreiger also emphasized the unbreakable bond that’s created during the program.
“You can tell the service dogs that come from Pawsitive for Heroes because the bond is so tight between the veteran, him or her, and their service dog,” Kreiger said. “I even hear it a lot of the time when we’re out in the community from law enforcement, from large corporations, small businesses or the individuals that say, ‘We can clearly tell a WNY Heroes dog or a Pawsitive for Heroes dog by the demeanor, by the behavior, by just that bond and trust that they have between the dog and the veteran.”
“The dogs learn that when a veteran is getting anxious about something — and I’ve seen this even before we had a service dog — where the dog would go stand in front of the veteran or put his chin on the veteran’s lap, or bump his knee or something, say, ‘Hey, I’m here,” said Schaller’s wife, Carol. “You could just see the anxiety and everything drain out of the veteran.”
The program has since garnered the support of the Buffalo Sabres, putting Pawsitive for Heroes in the national spotlight. For three years now, the Sabres have added a team dog to its roster. The dog makes appearances with the team while training with WNY Heroes. At the end of the season, it’s handed over to its veteran handler.
“We’ve gotten a lot of support out of it, ” Kreiger said. “To watch even more veterans apply to the program, to watch even more sponsors who maybe attended a Sabres game and got to see Rick two years ago, Nikki last year or Blue this year, and see that they want to get behind it and support it is a huge turning point for the program.”
“When I started here, we had about 16 service animals,” said Lynn Magistrale – a U.S. Navy and Air Force veteran who served in Iraq, and now works as WNY Heroes’ vice president. “We now have 160-something, 170-something service dogs. Seeing this organization grow tremendously has been absolutely amazing and amazing to be a part of.”
Pawsitive for Heroes is one of many programs at WNY Heroes geared toward helping veterans transition from combat to civilian life. Kreiger’s hope for the future is to expand the organization and help even more servicemembers.
“Our goal is to be able to take on all 17 counties in Western New York,” Kreiger said. “Through our major program that really started it all — Heroes’ Bridge — right now, we can cover a veteran’s back rent, mortgage, utilities or food for up to four months. The goal, moving forward, is to be able to cover him or her for six months and allow them, after exiting the military, to concentrate on their mental health, their physical health and their family — let them create that bond again with their spouse and children that I know I lost after coming home.”
“If there’s anybody out there interested in any type of community work or community services, we have peer-to-peer programs, we have volunteer opportunities, we have financial assistance. Just come in for a cup of coffee.” Magistrale said. “We will welcome you. We say all the time that we are not a business, we are a family.”
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