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Vernon Hills vet to tell how service dogs help PTSD

Gander service dog can sense when Vietnam veteran LHodge is getting anxious. When thhappens Gander shows affecticalms his companion. |

Gander the service dog can sense when Vietnam veteran Lon Hodge is getting anxious. When that happens, Gander shows affection and calms his companion. | Rick Kambic/Sun-Times Media

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Book signing and service dog seminar

When: 7 p.m. Feb. 13

Where: Hansa Coffee Roasters, 755 N. Milwaukee Ave., Libertyville

Cost: Free

Details: 847-226-8815

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Updated: April 5, 2014 3:44AM

Veteran Lon Hodge of Vernon Hills says roughly 21 servicemen, past and present, commit suicide every day.

This is based on a report released this month by the Department of Veterans Affairs — which explores the most extensive data the department has ever collected on suicide — and found that the number of suicides among veterans reached 22 a day in 2010, the most recent year available.

But thanks to Gander, Hodge’s highly-trained and loving service dog, Hodge said he narrowly avoided being a casualty.

Now, Hodge and Gander are working to make service dogs more available to veterans and accepted by the general public. The duo started by self-publishing a book of stories about dogs and veterans titled “In Dogs We Trust.”

Hodge, 60, plans to discuss his book and educate the business community on how to handle service dogs during a forum at 7 p.m. Feb. 13 at Hansa Coffee Roasters in Libertyville.

As the use of service dogs increases, Hodge said he wants business owners and managers to understand the need and legal rights of people who have service dogs.

The journey for Hodge began three years ago when he was prescribed a service dog for his post-traumatic stress disorder and severe arthritis caused by an autoimmune disorder. At that time, Hodge was so overwhelmed by fears that he couldn’t leave his house and barely slept.

Gander, a Labrador-poodle mix — or labradoodle — was days away from being euthanized when the organization Freedom Service Dogs rescued him and trained him at Canõn City Penitentiary in Colorado.

After their first seven months together, Hodge became fully mobile. Gander is trained to retrieve anything Hodge needs and calms the veteran through physical contact when he senses anxiety building up.

Gander took second place in last year’s Service Dog of the Year contest, conducted by the American Humane Association. A portion of the contest encompassed the use of social media — designed to raise awareness as well as recognition.

At the time, Gander’s Facebook page had 8,000 likes. Though the competition ended, Hodge and Gander kept spreading the word and networking with everyone they met in their day-to-day life.

Now Gander has nearly 200,000 likes and Hodge gets swarmed with hundreds of messages a day from people who relate to his story or want to support the cause.

That ongoing social media campaign is how Hodge came in contact with dozens of nationally-acclaimed writers and New York Times best-sellers who contributed to “In Dogs We Trust.”

The 139 page book, which features photos and first-hand accounts, costs $20 and will be available during the Feb. 13 event or upon request at Gander’s Facebook page. All proceeds will benefit service dog organizations and a scholarship fund started by the family of fallen Medal of Honor recipient Lt. Michael Murphy.

Hodge is also now working on a second book, which he’s already titled “Fetch 21.” The title combines Hodge’s approximation of 21 servicemen who take their own lives each day with the noble 21-gun salute.

Hodge said he plans to share 21 detailed stories of what an active or retired soldier experienced before committing suicide. He also plans to intertwine brief stories of how he relates and how Gander helped alleviate those stresses.

Because he’s begun searching for touching accounts, Hodge is also inviting veterans or families of veterans to attend the Feb. 13 event.

Kevin Kane, co-owner of Hansa Coffee Roasters said he agreed to host the event because he has a friend who survived Vietnam, and when they met in 1988 he was the man’s only non-veteran friend.

Retired servicemen had little-to-no help back then, Kane said. Today is different, he continued, and the pro-troops movement has to be maintained.

As a tribute to Gander, Kane and his business partner Tom Maegdlin created a custom Baltic gold brew of coffee and named it “Gander’s Choice.”

Hodge and Gander are also well known in Colorado as they often visit the Freedom Service Dogs facility. That’s where they met Denver Broncos wide receiver Eric Decker, who has a foundation called Deckers Dogs. At a recent fundraiser for Deckers Dogs, a painting of Gander sold for $5,000. Afterward, Decker also vowed to donate money to Freedom Service Dogs for every yard he amassed in the Feb. 2 Super Bowl.

Throughout their rising popularity, Gander has also had to work overtime. Hodge said consoling people who reach out to him triggers his own anxiety and similar fears, but he knows he must continue his campaign.

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