HATTIESBURG, MS (WDAM) - A new program at the University at Southern Mississippi plans to pair dogs with student-veterans to help in the transition from military to college life.
"Transitioning from the United States Military into civilian life, especially college life, can be stressful," said Michael Magee, Senior VA Certifying Officer with the USM Center for Military Veterans, Service Members and Families.
"Now that they are integrating into civilian life, some of them need additional assistance sometime in integration and the comfort that a pet has in many cases provides that type of comfort that they need, as well as companionship," said Magee.
The new program, "Operation Paws for Patriots," is said to be the first of its kind in Mississippi. The innovative program identifies individuals across the local community interested in donating a canine "working dog" to a student-veteran and his or her respective family.
"It's very much needed, it's therapeutic as well as its helpful for them to have an outlet to be able to pour out their love and feel love from the pet and to have those relationships grow and nurtured," said Magee. "Those are built up by the companionship they are able to experience between each other."
The program was officially launched when Army veteran Dustin Simmons of Purvis donated a nine-week-old pure breed German Shepard to Southern Miss student-veteran Gary Crispell. According to USM, Simmons decided he wanted to give back when his female German Shepard was preparing to deliver a litter of puppies.
The puppy is now named Major.
"Major has brought me a lot of comfort so far and I feel like sometimes in life you don't know exactly what you need until you have it," said Crispell. "I'm just feeling very happy that major has become a part of our family."
Crispell is a U.S. Navy veteran who served active duty for five years, spending time in Kuwait, Iraq and Okinawa. In his transition from the military, Crispell decided to apply his GI Bill to embark upon an advanced education and professional future in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM). He is set to graduate in May of 2019 with a doctorate in molecular biology and plans to enter the field of Medicine.
"Sometimes the veterans that are coming back as they enter school, they might be alone, they may have to leave their home or family to come to school," said Crispell. "So, maybe having a companion like Major can benefit them."
Magee said the center paired Cripsell with Major through a screening process. He hopes to see the program grow, with more dogs being donated to student-veterans.
"We often have people here, who just out the goodness of their heart want to do something," said Magee. "So, the formation of this 'Operation Paws for Patriots' is just one more way for the citizens here in the Pine Belt area to show that we are military friendly and we are truly patriots as it pertains to our student-veterans, especially right here at the University of Southern Mississippi."
If you are interested in or know someone who may want to support "Operation Paws for Patriots," contact the Center for Military Veterans, Service Members and Families or call 601-264-2629.