United States Marine Corps veteran Victor G. Lesa Jr. wheels through the tight hallways of his Wailuku apartment, with his caretaker, "EM," trailing close behind.
The two have been inseparable for the past four years, communicating by licks, nudges and commands, and giving each other purpose in their day-to-day lives.
United States Marine Corps veteran Victor G. Lesa Jr. and his Labrador mix caretaker, “EM,” pose for a photo Monday inside their Wailuku apartment. Lesa is one of six veterans who have service dogs that were trained or provided by Maui Dog Tags K9 Service — a nonprofit focused on providing therapy and service dogs to Maui veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and other disabilities.
The Maui News / CHRIS SUGIDONO photo
"When things go bad, where I'm in pain, she will nudge me to say time to take medication," Lesa said of his Labrador mix companion on Monday. "When things are really bad, she paces back and forth and knows something is really bad; or I black out. I've had too many hits to the head."
Lesa, 46, is one of six veterans with service dogs that were trained or provided by Maui Dog Tags K9 Service Inc. Founded in May 2013 by Chris Radermacher, a canine specialist and master dog trainer, the group is focused on providing therapy and service dogs to Maui veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and other disabilities.
"I'm a fighter. I'm not going to give up," said Lesa, who serves as vice president of the group. "I'm going to continue to do whatever I can to help others because I know we've seen the impact she's had on our family.
"Before I wouldn't be able to talk to (people) without getting all worked up."
The organization, which applied for 501(c)3 nonprofit status this month, is seeking support and funding to help provide more canines and future jobs as dog handlers to veterans returning home from military service.
Robert Santry, chief executive officer of the nonprofit, said that the group is aiming for a $3.2 million budget in three years to buy office space for grooming and training dogs, and hiring veterans as handlers. He said buying ideal dog breeds such as German shepherds, Bernese mountain dogs and Labrador retrievers from Canada and Germany can cost anywhere from $9,000 to $25,000.
"It's all been personal and out of our own pockets," Santry said. "We have three handlers, but right now no one's paid because we don't have any money for them."
Each dog undergoes "a very rigorous training regimen" of at least six hours and prospective owners are taught how to provide care and give commands to the dog if they are paired together successfully, Santry said. He said injured veterans from programs such as the Wounded Warrior Project will particularly benefit from the added company.
"We have done the clinical work on this, and we discovered that when the wounded warriors come back they lapse into serious depression and PTSD," said Santry, who served as a military chaplain in the U.S. Navy and Army for more than three decades. "When we provide them a dog for companionship and therapy, it elevates their mood and makes them feel better about PTSD. If they're impaired that dog will help them navigate streets, roads, shopping centers and provide them security."
For Lesa, "EM" has filled the role of caretaker after he was severely injured - not in battle - but at work on Maui.
Lesa served eight years in the Marines before he was honorably discharged due to myriad physical complications, including back fusion surgery.
The setbacks, however, paled in comparison to the one he suffered on Dec. 4, 2008, which left him virtually crippled.
Working as a journeyman lineman, someone who builds and maintains electrical power systems, Lesa's left leg was crushed in an industrial accident. Six years later, he still cannot comment about the accident because of his ongoing workers' compensation case.
"Nighttime, my wife can vouch, is my worst time," he said of the pain in his left leg. "My feet swell up, depending on the day and what I've done."
Lesa said that his ability to walk is extremely limited and that the pain is so intense sometimes that his heart races, which has caused him to see a cardiologist.
"The reason why I use the chair is because I've fallen down too many times and hit my head," he said.
While experiencing occasional blackouts as a result of the trauma to his head, Lesa struggles with his memory and even had to relearn how to speak and pronounce certain words - an issue he still deals with today.
"My wife, she has stuck by me throughout this whole thing," said the father of three children. "She has not left my side even though it's hard for her."
Lesa's wife, Richele, said that after the incident her husband would spend most of the day in his room, or "the cave," watching television with the window blinds shut because sunlight gave him headaches.
Two years later, the family would take home its dog as an early Christmas present.
"Having 'EM,' it gave him a purpose," Richele Lesa said.
The dog immediately took to Victor Lesa, caring for him and always sleeping near his room at night, he said.
"She would always try to be there and acknowledge me, but I was not so in tune to what was really going on until the veterans came," he said of members with Maui Dog Tags and another dog service group, Hawaii Fido. "She really wanted to work."
Last year, Radermacher helped train "EM" and taught Lesa some basic commands.
"She's very smart," Lesa said of "EM," who he trains himself now. "They were amazed at how fast she picked up things."
Michael Nakamura, a dog handler and secretary for Maui Dog Tags, remembers Lesa as "almost a shut-in" before joining the group last year, but now he has "as much experience, if not more" training service dogs than Nakamura.
"He's got a mission now, and it's really affected his life in a beneficial way," Nakamura said.
Although group members say the goal is to help veterans first, the group has larger aspirations in helping communities by training dogs in other services such as odor, bomb, drug and insect detection. The group also assisted in searches for missing Maui women Moreira "Mo" Monsalve and Carly "Charli" Scott earlier this year.
The group consists of seven veteran volunteers. Although Radermacher has moved to the Mainland for family reasons, he remains in contact with members and plans to return to the island for periodic canine training.
Lesa said there is still much work to be done to help veterans returning from war. He said his son was medically discharged recently with post-traumatic stress disorder.
"It's not about me. It's about the younger generation going in and coming back and needing help," he said. "That's what I see in my son and others. At the (Veterans Resource Center) you see the scars and the things they have gone through. I really don't worry about myself.
"I guess I'm breaking the ice one step at a time, or one wheel at a time."
* Chris Sugidono can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.