When Michael Garvey returned from Afghanistan with a Purple Heart and painful injuries, he struggled with intense night sweats and post-traumatic stress disorder, among other issues.
The firefight he survived left him with nerve damage to his leg and injuries to his stomach. Garvey tried therapy and medication to cope with the pain and loneliness. Then, after two years of treatment for PTSD, Garvey found a black lab named Liberty. That’s when his life began to change, he said.
“Since I got Liberty, I have been so much happier,” Garvey said of his service dog. “The loneliness goes away.”
Having Liberty also helped the night sweats disappear — to Garvey's surprise.
Garvey drove from Maryland to the Bedford Hills Correctional Facility, a high-security women’s prison about 30-miles north of New York City, to pick up his new companion. Inmates had trained Liberty there as part of the Puppies Behind Bars program.
Gloria Gilbert Stoga started PBB in 1997. The program promised a long-reaching impact for everyone involved: inmates contribute to society in a positive way, veterans get the support and companionship they needed, and the dogs, while they are being trained, get round-the-clock attention and love.
Garvey said he has benefited greatly from the program and so has Annette Montstream, a dog trainer serving time for a manslaughter conviction.
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“Because I have taken a life and I feel badly, I wanted to give back,” she said.
Montstream met Garvey when he visited the prison to train with the inmates before he took Liberty home. At Bedford Hills he learned dog commands and tips for how to care for the animal.
When Garvey recently visited the prison to reconnect with the women, Montstream saw a change in his demeanor.
“He seems much more relaxed, joking, instead of being so reserved,” Montstream said. “I believe his change in behavior is because of his service dog.”
Inside the prison, puppies stay with their inmate handlers just about everywhere they go. The inmates paired with puppies sleep in a special housing unit. Once or twice a week non-incarcerated volunteers take the canines for rides in cars, to soccer games and to the grocery store. With the exposure, the dogs become accustomed to the outside world. By age 2 or 3, the dogs will be ready for their new homes.
Some of the dogs will become bomb-sniffers but most of them will be paired with wounded war veterans.
For Garvey, having Liberty hasn’t been a simple task, with all the work that comes with owning a dog. But the benefits outweigh the responsibilities.
“It's not a pill you can swallow in the morning and then go about your day,” Garvey said. “It's work but it's worth it.”