Chittenango’s Clear Path for Veterans lends a paw to those who served

Chittenango's Clear Path for Veterans lends a paw to those who served.

The nonprofit organization creates new bonds between combat veterans and service dogs.
Published: November 11, 2021
Kellie Hatton, a trainer at Clear Path for Veterans, with Bolden, an English Labrador who's in training
Bolen is one of the many dogs in training at Clear Path for Veterans, pictured with Kellie Hatton, a trainer at the organization.

It’s the middle of the night and the bedroom is dark. They lay together in bed, a paw here, a foot there, sleep is the same way. When he tosses and turns, the dog jumps off the sheets and mattress and hits the light switch on the wall. He wakes up. He’s not there anymore.

Brett Hurlburt of Syracuse, New York, is one of the thousands of United States military veterans that suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). According to the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs, 11-20% of service members who deployed to Iraq during Operation Iraqi Freedom suffer from PTSD now.

“[I was] always angry, always frustrated and I didn’t know why,” Hurlburt said. “And it was because of the fact that I was trying to deal with PTSD without a support structure, without assistance.”

That support structure, now, is a two-year-old English Labrador service dog in training named Rotary. Hurlburt, a retired U.S. Army Captain and West Point graduate who completed tours to Kosovo, Korea and Iraq from 1998-2006 as a military police officer, was paired with Rotary in June.

“I would get angry or mad or just yell at people because I didn’t know how to deal with it,” Hurlburt said. “I just wanted people away from me. [Rotary] can kind of help me realize that it’s not that bad.”

That pairing process of finding Hurlburt a service dog happened at Clear Path for Veterans in Chittenango, New York. The nonprofit organization offers a free service dog program to veterans of the United States military suffering from PTSD, military sexual trauma and traumatic brain injury. Inside Clear Path, the walls are painted lavender, the air smells like Milkbones and the floor is lined with chew toys.

“Everybody finds [Clear Path] to be a really safe place,” said Patricia Chase, Clear Path’s behavioral health consultant who has worked with veterans in social work for 20 years. “They’re surrounded by other veterans so they feel safe, and they know we’re here to welcome them and respect them.”

Chase said that veterans who served in combat situations have high levels of cortisol, a stress hormone that induces feelings of anxiety. Clear Path-trained dogs can detect when their veteran is feeling anxious and alleviate their symptoms.

For Rotary, that means sleeping next to Hurlburt in bed every night, ready to spring to action if he has a nightmare. When they are in public and Hurlburt feels anxious, Rotary senses that and leans against him, using his body weight to comfort him.

“Yesterday, I was at the VA [Veteran Affairs] talking about something that was uncomfortable and (Rotary) started whining and putting his head on my lap,” Hurlburt said. “They’re there to kind of keep you present and realize that you’re not in those situations anymore.”

Nightmares and anxiety aren’t rare for veterans suffering from PTSD. But the bond that Hurlburt shares with Rotary is.

“(It’s) the most rewarding thing to watch,” Skylar McClure, Clear Path’s Client Service Coordinator said about pairing veterans with service dogs. “When you talk to these people and hear their stories of what they’ve been through and everything, it’s amazing their connection with these dogs.”

Rotary sticks with Hurlburt wherever he goes, even when flying for his job with Michel’s Energy and Infrastructure Contracting. In public, Rotary’s primary job is tending to his handler’s needs, but at home, he can hang out with Hurlburt’s four kids. Hurlburt said they take turns playing fetch, cuddling and reading to him.

“When we’re at home and he has his jacket off and he’s given a certain command, he can be a normal, just everyday dog,” Hurlburt said. “He’s definitely become a part of the family.”

Chase said she is always impressed by learning about the bond that combat veterans share. Clear Path’s canine program forms a similar relationship between dog and veteran.

“They call it a brotherhood for a reason, and they would do anything for one another,” Chase said. “The dog becomes a substitute for that. A ‘battle buddy’. That’s what they call them.”