Portrait of a Hero: Mary Cortani – Of the more than 2 million U.S. troops deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan since October 2001, it's estimated that one in five is likely to be afflicted by PTSD or major depression, according to the RAND Corp.
Portrait of a Hero: Mary Cortani – Many U.S. war veterans are finding peace and stability back at home thanks to the calming influence of service dogs. Cortani often matches veterans with dogs from shelters or rescue groups, and then she helps them train the dog.
Portrait of a Hero: Mary Cortani – Cortani started training dogs more than 30 years ago while she was in the Army, and she translated that to civilian life, where she runs a canine obedience school. It was only recently that she started focusing on war veterans.
Portrait of a Hero: Mary Cortani – The training program lasts at least eight months and can take as long as a year. "The dog is with them 24 hours a day, seven days a week. It's a constant," Cortani said. "Every day, everything is a training opportunity. They get to work and move forward."
Portrait of a Hero: Mary Cortani – Cortani also continues to train civilians at her facility in northern California.
Portrait of a Hero: Mary Cortani – "Sometimes these vets need the help and care of a friend," photographer Benjamin Lowy said. "These service animals ... can help them get through their day."
Portrait of a Hero: Mary Cortani – "The canine-human bond is an amazing gift that can make a difference for an individual to begin to feel and create their own new normal," Cortani said.
Portrait of a Hero: Mary Cortani – Jessie Lynn Gaches, daughter of veteran Jeremiah Gaches, works with her dog Echo. Jeremiah Gaches began as a client of Cortani's, and he is now a trainer himself.
Portrait of a Hero: Mary Cortani – "It's an amazing experience to see her work with these men and women who have already sacrificed so much for our country," photographer Lowy said. "And now she is sacrificing herself to help them."
Portrait of a Hero: Mary Cortani – Cortani, who served in the Army from 1975-1984, said PTSD and other invisible wounds are often overlooked by the general public.
Portrait of a Hero: Mary Cortani – "It's hard enough to come out of the service and get back into civilian life," she said. "But now (veterans) have an injury that people don't understand. They have to find a way to balance what they're feeling, what they've experienced, with everyday life."
Portrait of a Hero: Mary Cortani – Cortani says conventional medical therapy is still important for veterans, but "medical cannot address the spirit-soul. Therapy isn't there 24/7; a dog is."
Portrait of a Hero: Mary Cortani – "Service dogs work," Cortani said. "Just ask any veteran who used to isolate (himself), get in fights, lost his family, had no hope for the future, thought about suicide. They will tell you. We can make a difference, and we owe them a chance to enjoy life again."