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Lara & Cayenne

I can breathe again” — Veteran says service dog “has my back”

With Veterans Day approaching on Nov. 11, we would like to honor and thank the brave women and men who have served our country by sharing the story of Lara.

A veteran of the U.S. Navy, Lara had the distinction of serving as a Fleet Marine Force (FMF) corpsman with the Marines for 15 years. In that role, she was trained to treat combat wounds ranging from routine to catastrophic and to stabilize injured Marines for medical evacuation.

After serving in combat in the Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom campaigns, Lara returned home to Southern California with a traumatic brain injury (TBI), combat-related PTSD, and migraines—conditions that have caused depression, memory loss, anxiety, loss of balance, and recurring combat-related nightmares that have persisted over a decade.

Following her retirement from the military, Lara—who is also a breast cancer survivor—went back to school to become an interfaith chaplain and got a job in that capacity at a hospital. She also received a service dog named Corpsman from an organization in Texas. Says Lara, “Corpsman and I had been together six years, and he had just turned 9 years old. Corpsman saved my life. He helped me leave the house, survive breast cancer, connect with my family again, and become a part of society and thrive. He helped with my TBI, PTSD, and balance, but he was slowing down and needed to retire. I was fearful that my life would go back to the way it was, hiding from the world and disconnecting, and all the work I put into becoming a chaplain would be lost.”

In 2020, Lara was looking at Instagram posts by Ronin Factory, a lifestyle and apparel company that donates money raised from custom truck giveaways to charitable organizations, when she noticed they were doing a truck giveaway to benefit Freedom Service Dogs (FSD). In the last two years, Ronin Factory has generously donated nearly $595,000 to support the mission of FSD! “I looked FSD up,” says Lara, “and there was an instant connection. So I applied for another service dog because without one, I knew I would be lost.”

Lara was matched with an FSD service dog named Cayenne, and in July, she traveled to our Denver training facility for placement class. “When I first met Cayenne, I was blown away,” says Lara. “I was just so humbled and filled with gratitude, and when she looked at me, I knew we were bonded for life.”

Lara had not attended any type of placement class with her first service dog, so she was thrilled at the chance to spend two weeks with FSD staff and trainers, bonding with Cayenne, practicing custom training cues, and learning how to work together as a team. Says Lara, “I loved that I connected with other veterans and handlers who were going through some of the same fears, questions, and experiences learning the cues that I did. It was awesome.”

After graduating from FSD with Lara in July, Cayenne has become an indispensable part of Lara’s life. She awakens Lara from nightmares, nudges her when she exhibits signs of anxiety or distress, gets help when Lara becomes dizzy and off-balance from her breast cancer, PTSD, and migraine medications, helps Lara with her memory by finding and retrieving her keys and phone, and creates a safe space around Lara in crowds. “It’s crazy to think about,” says Lara, “but we have connected in such a way that I can anticipate what she needs and she anticipates what I need, sometimes without me asking—and it has only been three months!”

Adds Lara, “With Cayenne it is like I can breathe again, knowing she is there and she has my back. My confidence has increased, and I trust that when I stumble, she is there. I am not as hypervigilant as I was, and my anxiety has been dramatically reduced.”

In her future work as an interfaith chaplain, Lara’s goal is to serve fellow veterans either at a VA hospital or in a nonprofit setting. “I can’t say enough about FSD and the importance of veterans and civilians having service dogs,” says Lara. “With Cayenne at my side, I can continue to support other veterans such as myself and know they won’t be left behind.”

“I am so humbled by FSD’s generosity for the gift of Cayenne, and I feel so blessed. She gives me confidence and lets me know that just because there are things I can’t accomplish, that’s OK, we will do them as a team! With Cayenne, I feel a sense of calm that I haven’t felt in many years, and I am so grateful. I do believe there is something to the saying, ‘Dog spelled backwards is God.’”

Contact Erin Conley at [email protected]freedomservicedogs.org for all media inquiries.