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Local Hero – Earning Their Stripes

Local veterinarian viewed as a hero in the eyes of war veteransPhoenix Local Hero - John Burnham

By: Rosalie Capri

A good day for veterinarian John Burnham starts by providing the best possible medical treatment to four-legged patients at his Acoma Animal Clinic in Glendale. But a great day for Burnham ends with a heart-warming success story, made possible though his non-profit organization Soldier’s Best Friend (SBF). Burnham formed his foundation to partner homeless animals with war veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or traumatic brain disorder (TBI).

When Burnham’s father, who was a World War II veteran, passed away a few years ago, Burnham started to reflect on his own life. He says a combination of factors compelled him to start SBF. One of them included his sense of patriotism and wanting to give back to the military.

“After practicing veterinary medicine for 28 years, I saw the number of dogs who were being rescued and not getting placed into homes,” says Burnham. “I couldn’t think of a better cause than to combine these animals with our war veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan.”

Burnham, who is president and founder of SBF, describes the rescue group’s mission as a place to train service dogs or Therapeutic Companion Dogs with United States military veterans suffering from PTSD and/or TBI. “What we are doing is not only helping a homeless animal go into an ‘honorable home,’ but we are also aiding our war veterans as they readjust into civilian life,” says Burnham.
SBF is available to any veteran or active military member who has been diagnosed with PTSD or TBI. Once a soldier is accepted into the program, they are paired with a dog adopted from a local shelter or with the veteran’s own dog. Burnham says more than half of the dogs come from local shelters and the Arizona Humane Society. SBF’s therapist and dog trainers then design a task list for the veterans and their dogs to follow. Training is comprised of private and group sessions scheduled for two days each week for up to 30 weeks. Volunteers, some of whom are veterans themselves, staff SBF. The program charges no fees to the veterans participating in the program and relies strictly on donations.

Burnham says the most rewarding factor about his rescue work “is seeing the positive effect that the animals have on the veterans. We have seen that within one to three weeks of the dog and the veteran coming together, the veteran suffering from PTSD starts to open up more and start to smile again.” Burnham equates these results to the strong human-animal bond.

It is because of that special bond that Max, a Shar Pei mix who was adopted from the Arizona Humane Society, and Jerry, a Vietnam veteran who was awarded two Purple Hearts, share an “honorable home.” Jerry suffers from PTSD and violent nightmares. After two weeks in the training program, Max woke Jerry during one of his nightmares. Since Max has come into Jerry’s life, the nightmares have started to diminish.

Even with numerous success stories such as Jerry and Max, Burnham’s challenge remains: getting the word out to veterans about the SBF program and its benefits. “I think veterans need to consider the positive effects the dog will have for them,” Burnham attests. “Dogs are a non-questioning, non- judgmental, forever loving companion who will always be there for you whether it is a good day or a bad day.”

For more information about Soldier’s Best Friend, visit SoldiersBestFriend.org.

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