WAXHAW, N.C. — Editor's note: While nothing graphic is shared in this article, the topic of veteran suicide is discussed briefly. The end of this article features links to resources if you or a loved one are in crisis and need help.
They look like little fuzzballs now, but the Labrador puppies wiggling and playing in their pens at Project 2 Heal headquarters could soon grow into lifelines for veterans in need.
The Waxhaw-based organization, which breeds puppies specifically for service dog organizations, started as just a hobby for Charlie Petrizzo and his wife in 2005 and grew into its non-profit status in 2011.
Petrizzo said the group's main goal is to help veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) by delivering service-reliable puppies to organizations that can train them for important emotional and physical support, hopefully cutting down on the wait times for these types of animals.
"A service dog reduces those very symptoms that can lead a veteran to suicidal ideation," Petrizzo said. "So that's why they're important for veterans with PTSD, but also for veterans with loss of limb, they provide an opportunity for independence through mobility."
According to a 2021 Department of Veterans Affairs study, the suicide rate among veterans rose nearly 36% from 2001 to 2019. The last year of data in the report was 2019 and shows more than 6,200 veterans took their own lives that year.
Petrizzo said Project 2 Heal fills a void for service dog training programs, which can't always draw from shelters. He said while dogs from shelters can make incredible family pets, they might not always meet service-specific needs.
"Most organizations don't have a breeding program, and so this is what leads to the very long wait for service dogs, especially for our veterans today, who are waiting for years," Petrizzo said.
Anyone can support the Project 2 Heal cause, which is accepting donations of money, purchases from its supply wish list, and new volunteers.
If you or a loved one are facing thoughts of suicide or self-harm, there is help readily available. You can call Suicide and Crisis Lifeline at 988 and then press 1 for veterans resources or chat with them online. There are also resources in North Carolina available here and in South Carolina available here.
Veterans and their loved ones can also chat directly with the Veterans Crisis Line online, or by texting 838255.