Harold Siegfried was volunteering at ArtsQuest’s Christkindlmarkt two years ago, accompanied by his service dog, Phelan. Siegfried and Phelan were brought together by Tails of Valor, Paws of Honor, a nonprofit program that trains service dogs to interact with and become companions for veterans who are struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder, traumatic brain injuries and physical disabilities.
All the dogs, rescued from area animal shelters as puppies and trained for on average 18 months, are named for military personnel who were killed in action or who committed suicide after returning home. Phelan was named for Lt. Col. Mark Phelan, who was killed in 2004 by a car bomb in Iraq. A man who was visiting from East Norriton, Montgomery County, approached Siegfried that day and asked about his dog, a black Lab mix. Siegfried began telling him about the program and that each dog was named for a fallen serviceman or servicewoman. When he told the man that his dog was named after Lt. Col. Mark Phelan, the man dropped to his knees and began crying.
“What did I say?” Siegfried asked the man’s wife.
“That was his brother,” she replied.
Tails of Valor’s brief history is full of emotional stories. I want to get back to Harold Siegfried and another encounter involving Phelan and his namesake’s family, but first, I’ll tell you a little more about this remarkable nonprofit organization, based just outside Coopersburg. Heather Lloyd, the group’s founder and executive director, has a background in medicine and nutrition. She turned to a career in the pet industry in 1998. She began developing the program that became Tails of Valor in 2014 after she befriended a homeless Army veteran who had rescued a dog that became his best friend. She used half her high-end kennel building in Springfield Township as a training center and eventually turned the whole building over to Tails of Valor. In addition to kennels where the dogs stay during the week, there’s a big exercise yard, a nice indoor training area and 19 acres of trails through the woods.
The puppies typically are around 8-10 weeks old when they’re rescued, and they undergo training that becomes specific to the veteran they’re paired with. It may include preparation for door opening, switching on lights, fetching things, bracing, nightmare intervention and other specific tasks. The training must be refreshed annually. Employees and volunteers work with the dogs during the week, and the dogs go home with volunteers on the weekends to socialize them. Eleven dogs are in training now, with a 12th soon to arrive, according to the organization.
The paired veterans and dogs aren’t the only ones who are being helped. Lloyd has been working with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs on a pilot program for Canine Connections at the Coatesville Veterans Affairs Medical Center. That program explores how Tails of Valor service dogs could interact with troubled veterans to help them reconnect with the community. A similar pilot program will begin next month at the VA Medical Center in Philadelphia.
The group got a letter this month from Laura Fahringer of the Coatesville VA in which she noted that it has completed the pilot period and that feedback from veterans and clinical staff has been overwhelmingly positive. “Many of our veterans have difficulty engaging in treatment due to challenges with verbal processing, anxiety, isolation, etc.,” she wrote. “In a sentence, you have helped veterans become ‘unstuck’ and offered hope for a better future.”
This official connection with the VA is the first of its kind, Lloyd told me. “It’s a great honor,” she said.
Marine Corps veteran Jason Harrar, recently hired full time by Tails of Valor as a collaboration assistant, has been taking dogs to Coatesville for some of these therapy sessions. He’s well qualified, because he has experienced some of the same challenges they’re facing. The father of six children served 13 years of active duty and several more years in the Army Reserves. When he left the Corps in 2009, he went through a difficult divorce and growing problems with PTSD that continued in another high-stress job as a correctional officer. “I knew I had a problem,” he said. “I didn’t want to address it.” He never wanted to go out in public — “there was always somebody out to get me” — and when he tried to take his children out to do anything, it was a struggle. He said his future service dog, Loftus, sought out Harrar the first time he visited the training center. “We made the connection,” he said. “That was the fall-in-love day.” His relationship with Loftus, who graduates in December, has helped him be more open about his problems and greatly reduce his medication. “Six months ago, I was a different person,” he said.
As we talked Friday, Harrar was in Washington, D.C., preparing for Sunday’s Marine Corps Marathon.
Russell Armstrong, Tails of Valor’s veteran liaison, said the program is growing fast, in part because of fundraising efforts of people who support what they’re doing. If you’re interested in helping financially or volunteering, go to the Tails of Valor website at www.tailsofvalor.org or call 267-733-7294.
The fact that the dogs are named after fallen soldiers also has helped some of their family members with healing. Families of several soldiers who have been honored have volunteered to help the organization. Siegfried’s connection to the Phelan family didn’t end at Christkindlmarkt. He met this month with Mark Phelan’s widow, daughter and two grandchildren, inviting them to spend some time alone with the dog, who acted like he knew them. He said it was an emotional moment for everyone. Siegfried, 44, who was born in Easton, told me he enlisted in the Army while he was a junior in high school. He ended up in an artillery unit, serving from 1993-2001. Still, he says his PTSD resulted from traumatic events in his childhood and after he left the service rather than directly from his time in the military.
He said he’s had seven suicide attempts since 2010 and ended up homeless.
“If it wasn’t for my art and my dog,” he said, “I have to tell you, I’d be dead.”
He was living at Victory House homeless shelter in Bethlehem when he began volunteering for ArtsQuest, where he had the opportunity to start developing his long-dormant art skills. Now living on his own, he’s taking art classes on scholarship at the Baum School, and some of his paintings are on display in the training center.
The strength of his connection with Phelan is striking. He described instances where Phelan has interrupted nightmares, intervened to prevent stressful situations and provided the support he needed to help him reconnect with people, including Lloyd and Armstrong, who have become close friends. Whatever happens, he knows his dog has his back. “This guy’s my world,” he said.
Mind you, he said, Phelan isn’t perfect. The dog was struggling with his training until he hooked up with Siegfried.
“He’s hard-headed,” he said. “He’s a perfect fit for me.” And as much as Siegfried’s opened up over the last couple of years, he still finds dark thoughts threatening to overcome him, particularly when he’s struggling to sleep.
But there’s a big difference. “Now with him,” he said, “the first thing that pops in my mind, if I take my own life, what’s it going to do to him?”
Bill White’s commentary appears Tuesdays, Thursdays and Sundays.