NISKAYUNA — The premise of Operation At Ease is simple: fulfilling the needs of
veterans struggling with PTSD and finding a loving home for
dogs who have recently been rescued — “saving one life to greatly benefit another,” as one volunteer puts it.
But for the people and dogs that Joni Bonilla and her team have paired together, it’s much more than that.
“Our bond is unbreakable. She is in tune with my emotions and even my facial expressions. When I need a day just to unwind at home she will gladly sit
at my feet for hours looking up and checking in on me between naps,” Marine veteran Eddie Reynolds said of his dog, Callie.
He is working through OAE to have Callie become a certified service dog.
Bonilla, a Niskayuna resident, founded Operation At Ease in the spring of 2015 to join together people struggling with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder with rescue dogs who need a home.
Bonilla said she had the idea for the program after “I had a phone call with a very good friend who had just gotten out of the Army after 20 years of service.
He has PTSD, but he had a dog that really helped him.”
Unfortunately, his dog died, and when Bonilla tried to find him another one who was trained to comfort an owner with PTSD, she found it was almost impossible.
“The VA doesn’t fund PTSD dogs at all,” Bonilla said. There was nowhere else for her to go and only a small number of foundations that could help with the situation.
So Bonilla decided to found Operation At Ease with her husband, Matthew Gleason (who is in the U.S. Air Force) and with friend Bellanca Fletcher in 2015.
“It’s mostly been word of mouth so far,” Bonilla said of the Operation’s start, but the VA hospital in Albany now refers patients with PTSD to Operation At Ease.
They’ve been able to successfully
pair several people struggling with PTSD with rescue dogs that are trained to work with their needs. They’re hoping to help some more of the over 30 million
people in the United States struggling with some degree of PTSD.
“There is no federally regulated standard for PTSD dogs. Our dogs have to pass the public access test so that they can slowly walk up a flight of stairs with their veteran and know not to run across a parking lot. We work on the dogs to react to
PTSD symptoms,” Bonilla said.
Some of these symptoms or signs may include memory loss, agitation, insomnia and flashbacks or nightmares.
“The average person requires three feet of distance between themselves and another person. A person with PTSD may require six feet,” Bonilla said. A
trained PTSD dog will help to create that space when a veteran is walking through a crowded area so that the veteran will be more comfortable.
Bonilla has been working with dogs for most of her life.
She owns and runs Joni’s Doggy Train, a boarding and training facility in Niskayuna. She is also passionate about veterans, as her husband and many of their friends are in the military.
“It’s easy to say you support veterans. But it’s hard when it comes down to actually supporting them and knowing what they need. It’s a completely different
world from the civilian world and transitioning back can be hard. You don’t really ever know what it’s like for them. I don’t even get it all the time,” Bonilla said.
With Operation At Ease, Bonilla is combining those two passions to fill a twofold need that is often overlooked.
Miss Mary Walker, one of the most recent rescue dogs that Operation At Ease took on, came from a hoarding situation in North Carolina.
“When they found her, her fur was completely matted and she was covered in fecal matter,” Bonilla said.
After she was cleaned up and brought up to Niskayuna, volunteers with Operation At Ease fostered and trained Mary. She stayed with Sonya Ward for several
weeks, just learning how to be in a home and being housebroken.
“We’re really looking for volunteers who can foster a dog for two weeks. That way the dog will be able to be exposed to more people, volunteers won’t get overloaded
and then we’ll be able to take in more dogs,” Bonilla said.
Miss Mary Walker will soon be paired with a veteran from Massachusetts who served twice in Operation Iraqi Freedom and is now battling cancer.
Marine Corps veteran Eddie Reynolds has found solace and peace at having his dog Callie help him through the daily struggles of PTSD, which he has
suffered from since 2006.
“I applied to a few service dog organizations and although I qualified for a service dog the wait list was months and even years long. I couldn’t wait that long,” Reynolds said. He tried training his golden retriever Callie to become a service dog, but that proved difficult to do without the help of a professional.
Reynolds is working with Bonilla to train Callie to become Public Access Certified, although Reynolds has already found that having Callie around has helped
to comfort and relieve some of the effects of PTSD.
“Callie is a blessing and having a person like Joni who pours her heart out for our veterans and sacrifices so much just to help is a testament to what a great person
she really is. She is changing veterans’ lives one puppy at a time,” Reynolds said.
One Schenectady Veteran, Daniel Paige, was also recently paired with a rescued pit bull named Shirley.
“I recently had a snoozer and I talked to Joni about trying to train that dog to be a PTSD dog. But that didn’t work out. So Joni found Shirley and brought her over to
my house. We bonded immediately. She’s the most loving dog I’ve ever met,” Paige said.
Bonilla is working with Shirley and Paige to prepare Shirley for the certification exam, which will be sometime this fall.
Want to get involved?
How to contact Joni Bonilla:
EMAIL: Joni@operation atease.org