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Iraq War Veteran Forms Extra-Special Bond With Canine Companion

Retired Army Captain: Assistance Dog Has Helped 'Emotionally,' 'Physically'
James Van Thach with Liz (Credit: CBS 2)

James Van Thach with Liz (Credit: CBS 2)

MEDFORD, N.Y. (CBSNewYork) – A local Iraq War veteran lost sight in his left eye, his ability to practice law and some mobility.  Now, he’s counting on a canine companion to help with the little, but important things in life.

Retired Army Capt. James Van Thach walks with a cane and with “Liz” — his assistance dog — by his side. Just two weeks ago, they were paired for life by Canine Companions for Independence. They’ve been in training ever since.

“It’s a very challenging process and a rewarding process because we’re building a new relationship,” Van Thach told CBS 2’s Vanessa Murdock.

It’s a constant companionship between man and man’s best friend. The Wounded Veteran Initiative pairs brilliant canines like Liz with wounded warriors for free.

“Not only for emotionally, but physically because it’s so difficult with my disability,” Van Thach said, describing the program’s benefits.

The retired captain was injured twice during a two-year deployment to Iraq — first by an improvised explosive device (IED) and then by a rocket which exploded just 20 meters away from him.

“My body got picked up by the bomb blast and I was thrown to the ground,” Van Thach explained. “And I incurred a traumatic brain injury.”

Van Thach suffers from migraines and short-term memory loss. He has also lost some mobility in his back and neck, making it hard to bend down.

And that’s why he needs Liz by his side.

“Because of the injury from the war, I do have to take medication and occasionally I drop my medication bottles,” Van Thach said.

But now Liz is there to pick them up or turn on the lights. Their instructor, Flora Baird, said that Liz is unquestionably the right canine for the job.

“She’s very businesslike, very matter-of-fact about her work,” Baird said. “To watch her start to open up with him and really just only have eyes for James has been so cool.”

On Friday this dynamic duo will graduate.

“It’s very emotional,” said Debra Dougherty, the executive director of Canine Companions for Independenc. “It will be a very happy day.”

“I feel very confident having her by my side,” Van Thach said, “and I look forward to the future relationship that we will share together.”

It’s a relationship that will no doubt be filled with paw shakes, ‘atta girls and smiles.

After graduation the two will head home to Bellerose Manor in Queens.

How great is it that James Van Thach can have a companion like Liz? Offer your thoughts and comments below…