In bringing attention to the need for service dogs for veterans, Jimmy Thomas already has traveled hundreds of miles — and then are many more hundreds to go before he rests.
Thomas, who made his way from New York to Key West on a kayak along the Intercoastal Waterway, is now biking his way back. His route took him through Liberty and Bryan counties Tuesday morning, with the help of Rotary Clubs and Rotarians along the way.
His “Doggie Paddle for Veterans” is raising money and awareness to procure service dogs for veterans. Thomas, who had been in the U.S. Army’s miliary police, knows the benefits first-hand of having a service dog to help handle stress.
“I got out of the hospital and I was having stress-induced seizures,” Thomas said. “I didn’t know there was such a thing. They couldn’t figure out what else to do to lower stress.”
When he got out of the hospital, Thomas was paired with Boots, a golden retriever. Boots passed away about two weeks before Thomas set out on his journey.
Boots was trained through another organization to be a service dog, but many veterans in need of service dogs can’t turn to the Veterans Administration for that kind of assistance. The cost to train a service dog can run as much as $50,000. To train a dog to be of service who is blind, it can cost as much as $75,000, Thomas said.
“I’ve got a dog, and I see these guys, they’re blind, one arm, no legs, and I’m thinking, I kinda felt guilty. I have a dog and these guys don’t,” Thomas said. “They could use one a lot more than I could. I found out the VA doesn’t provide service dogs. To me, it seems like a no-brainer. So if they’re not going to do it, I will.”
In addition to raising money, Thomas has gotten help from veterinarians offering to provide their services to vets with a service dog. He also has people willing to donate a dog every year to be trained.
“They need tick shots, flea shots, regular health care. They’ve got to have a leash,” Thomas said.
Thomas pointed out the effort is for service members anywhere.
“It has worked,” he said. “I didn’t know it was going to blow up like this. I knew that to get on the map, you had to do something crazy to get people’s attention. For me, to not do it and know what the need is and not do something, was crazy. I know what a service dog on my level did for me.”
Thomas also is working to make it easier for veterans to find service dogs.
He made a similar journey three years ago, biking from Oregon to Albany, New York, covering 3,500 miles. For this trip, Thomas had his bicycle mailed to Key West to make his way back north. The entire trip is about 4,000 miles, with the bike route being a little shorter by a couple hundred miles. He is staying at hotels and with hosts along his route.
Taking U.S. 17 to its finish, Thomas started Tuesday morning at St. Simons Island and finished just south of Savannah, logging about 84 miles.
“I take in everything I see,” he said.
His projected finish, rain, sleet, snow or shine, is February 4. For more information, visit www. doggiepaddle.org.