PITTSBURGH (KDKA)- Tom Cannon was visiting New York City on Sept. 11, 2001. He watched as the World Trade Center towers collapsed.
"I knew at that point I wanted to do something," said Cannon.
Tom is an emergency responder and jumped in to help. It was in those horrific days after Sept. 11 that he decided to become a soldier.
He joined the military and it wasn't long before he was deployed to Iraq. There, like so many servicemen , he witnessed devastation, destruction and death.
Cannon eventually returned home to Allentown, but not unscathed mentally, emotionally and physically. He was diagnosed with stage 3 non-Hodgkin's lymphoma and said the cancer came from chemicals constantly used by the enemy.
The diagnosis sent Tom into a tailspin, as he only left his home to go to the grocery store with his young son.
"I became very paranoid about going out. When I did go out, it was with him and then I started feeling boxed in and crowds really started to get to me," said Cannon.
His anxiety became severe. Between battling aggressive cancer, going through a divorce and not leaving the house for a year-and-a-half, Cannon hit rock-bottom.
There's where Camo came in.
Cannon is the only veteran from Pennsylvania who has received a dog from Guardian Angels Medical Service Dogs in Williston, Florida.
Cannon and Camo had an instant bond and for the first time, in a long time, he was able to venture out into the public, to a restaurant.
"There was anxiety when I first got in the car to go there and then as soon as I got out, he got out and he just recognized right away and without even saying anything, just put his paw on my foot and we walked into the restaurant," Cannon said.
Camo has given Tom freedom, comfort, and a sense of purpose, but that's not all. After rough chemotherapy treatments, Camo helps with Cannon's medications.
"He goes upstairs with it, drops it on the bed next to me, goes back downstairs, opens the refrigerator, gets me a bottle of water and brings it back up," he said.
Camo has completely changed his life and that was the whole idea. Giving service dogs to suffering veterans is what Pittsburgh-native and Vietnam veteran, Tony Accamando is on a mission to do.
Accamando is the co-founder of Veterans Cable Services, which employs vets. He's recently formed a group called, Life-Changing Service Dogs for Veterans.
His goal is to raise the almost $500,000 needed to purchase service dogs for local vets.
"Our hope is to raise enough money for 22 dogs over 22 months, which essentially would give us one day without a suicide in the veteran population," said Accamando.
Accamando says to date, that no veteran who has received a Guardian Angels Medical Service dog has committed suicide.
Dan Pultz, also a Vietnam vet, is involved with team TBI, a research project on traumatic brain injury at the University of Pittsburgh.
He said today's veterans are worse off than those of the past because of serving multiple combat tours. They suffer anxiety, depression and night terrors.
Pultz agrees that service dogs can mean the difference between life and death for a vet suffering with PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder).
"When they are transitioning out of the service because of their wounds, injuries or illnesses, they are being medically retired and they are transitioning out. This transition is really painful because it's that period of time they are trying to regain a purpose," said Pultz.
As for Tom, he says he fears where he would be today had he never met Camo, a dog that's much more than a man's best friend.
"He completely changed my life for the better," he said.
To make a donation: make checks payable to Guardian Angels Medical Service Dogs. The group is designated as a 501(c)3 which qualifies donors for a tax deduction. Mail checks to Veterans Cable Services, Inc., 3591 Ridgeway Drive, Bethel Park, PA, 15102.
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