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Reframing the Future through Art Therapy & Service Dog Partnership

Updated: Jun 28, 2023

The following is a message from Val Schaefer, a veteran of the Iraq war who served as a Sergeant in the US Marine Corps and Staff Sergeant in the US Army. Val's struggle with PTSD has been a challenging journey, but today he works in missile systems operations as a government contractor with Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory. Along with the art therapy enjoyed through his work at ValCo Ornate Frames—a small business he launched in 2018, specializing in handcrafted Modern Victorian art frames—Val's service dog Frankie continues to play a crucial role in managing PTSD. Nurtured and donated by Project 2 Heal, Frankie was trained and placed by Fidos for Freedom.

Understanding the Complexity of PTSD.

To properly explain the tremendous positive impact Frankie has on my life, it is important to first understand what post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is to me and how it affects my day-to-day life. I think it is a life challenge that is often misunderstood and confusing to many. PTSD has impacted me in ways I never would have imagined. At first, I believed I would heal and return to the familiar version of me.

Over the years it became apparent the experiences in Iraq have altered me forever.

I continue the fight at home against the invisible enemy within because my children need their father. This fight is different from any other I’ve experienced. It is a fight to live a happy and meaningful life. A fight to be a person of substance to my loved ones. Now I know what sacrifice really means. For me, it meant losing some of the traits I liked best about myself.

Navigating the Fog & Reducing Severe Symptoms.

The PTSD experience can be compared to fog. First noticeable as a light haze creeping into the room, before long it is everywhere and difficult to recognize the environment around you. The bad days are actually a string of days, weeks, or months prior that have accumulated weight. When life's weight spills out from the rucksack and creates confusing complications. It doesn’t always look like what Hollywood portrays it to be. It is a short circuit in the body that triggers a fight/flight response or outright avoidance of negative stimulus, real or perceived. Other times it evokes an exhaustion that cannot be fixed by sleeping in the next day. It seems like the brain shuts down all nonessential operations and demands deep healing—it can put a person to bed for days on end.

With my service dog Frankie in my life, I’m never alone and the more severe symptoms happen less and less. Frankie and I are a team. She is my battle buddy. She comes with me everywhere and she is watching out for me. I must remain healthy to observe her and respond to her needs as we navigate life together. In return she helps me carry some of the weight from my rucksack.

The benefits come in two main categories:

  1. Command tasks: Deep pressure therapy, nonaggressive blocking of the space around me, companionship, and retrieval of items when my body isn’t cooperating.

  2. Self-learned tasks: Early warning indicator of a full rucksack and imminent “bad day” ahead.

I don’t know if she can smell a chemical change, hear something in my voice or see a change in my body language but she knows when I’m not well. She often knows well before I do.

When she identifies my health declining, she transitions from a quiet, patient companion into my advocate.

She inserts herself into my field of view with prolonged deep eye contact. If I don’t recognize her message, she talks to me with light barking. I feel that she is concerned about me and telling me to take care of myself. Since realizing Frankie’s behavior is an early warning indicator, I’m now able to self-assess early and proactively make life navigation decisions that lead to a much more balanced life. Without her, I'd surely continue pressing forward only to arrive frayed.

She is deeply invested in me. I am her priority. I am who she chooses to be with when my home is full of loved ones. During a late evening in the workshop, Frankie is known to retreat to the bedroom for comfort but always comes down both flights of steps to check on me almost hourly. It feels like she is telling me to take care of myself and to come get some rest. She is a life gift. Thank you Project 2 Heal and Fidos for Freedom. Your work has improved my quality of life. It has given me space to reflect and improve my health. Most importantly, your work has given my children a solid and loving Dad to help guide them through their years. I’m humbled by your kind and selfless efforts.

Val Schaefer


You Can Heal a Veteran & Honor a Loved One.

It can take up to 4 years and between $25,000—$40,000 to provide a life-changing service dog to a veteran struggling with PTSD or loss of limb. But it doesn't have to be this way. Project 2 Heal is a nonprofit working to reduce the cost and time needed to provide a service dog to someone in need. We accomplish this by breeding, nurturing, and donating world-class Labrador Retriever puppies to become service dogs for veterans, children with special needs, or adults with disabilities.

By joining our Healing Pawtners, you have the chance to dedicate every donation you make to honor a loved one. Your monthly contribution of $25, $50, or $100 will provide a consistent and reliable source of funding to help us meet our mission. Your support will help nurture our puppies' growth and development, as we prepare them to literally change lives as future service dogs. To show our appreciation for your support, you'll receive:​

  • Opportunity to honor a loved one through your charitable giving.

  • One "paw-tograph" from a Project 2 Heal puppy.

  • Professional family photo of each Project 2 Heal litter of future service dogs.

  • Access to visits with future service dogs at the Project 2 Heal facility.

  • Updates on puppy progress as our puppies are donated to service dog partner organizations.

  • "Healing Pawtners" car magnet to proudly display.


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