La Russa's ARF has big impact on vets, pets

Foundation pairs dogs with military veterans

La Russa's ARF has big impact on vets, pets

LAS VEGAS -- Soon after managing the last game of his Hall of Fame career, Tony La Russa was invited by Tom Coughlin, the New York Giants' coach, to a function for Wounded Warriors, the charity that looks out for injured military veterans.

It was an experience that would redefine the mission of La Russa's already long-established Animal Rescue Foundation (ARF).

La Russa met a veteran and the non-service dog upon which he relied, depended and doted. La Russa's impression: "If the veteran was getting thrown by rough waters and about to go under, the dog was the sturdy tree branch he grabbed for survival."

And another La Russa thought: ARF saves dogs from euthanization … why not have some of those dogs save returning military veterans from themselves?

Such a simple paradigm. Such a powerful ambition. Such an irresistible magnet for people who really do want to enhance the quality of life of special men and women, and have the means to do so.

ARF's Pets for Vets program is in its fourth year of saving veterans from those raging rapids, and its Fourth Annual Leaders & Legends Weekend dramatically furthered the cause.

Dozens of illustrious people have come and paid a pretty price -- every cent goes toward the initiative -- to listen to stars such as Joe Carter, Rickey Henderson, Jerry Reinsdorf, Joe Montana and many, many others brainstorm about their specialty and to attend Friday night's gala dinner at the Aria Hotel's Juniper Ballroom, where they themselves were the leaders.

In addition to the silent auction that was winding down in the lobby, Elena Bicker, ARF's executive director, made a low-key request for donations, noting that a benefactor had pledged matching funds for up to $50,000.

By a show of hands, it took maybe three minutes to raise $55,000.

"I hate like all heck that we did that, so my skin in chafing, because you've all stepped up just by being here," La Russa referenced the donation-plea to the gathered. "But I thank you."

La Russa was thanking them for putting a slight dent into some staggering numbers. According to estimates by the Veterans Administration, every day 22 veterans in the throes of post-traumatic stress disorder commit suicide. Per the SPCA, about 3,200 dogs are annually euthanized in America.

"So why not take both problems and put them together? Save two lives at once," Bicker said.

La Russa was thinking them on behalf …

… Of Iraqi war vet Robert Barrickman, and Otto:

"I was living in a black hole. I didn't see anything positive in the world. I was introduced to Otto … he's there for me to pet, if I need to, or just knowing he's there is comforting. He's reshaped my life, I've learned how to be a responsible person again. Caring for him, I've learned to care for myself.

"I'd like to thank ARF for the Pets for Vets program and for giving me such a good companion; Otto's the best thing that's ever happened to me."

… Of Rosemary James Walker, who served a year-and-a-half in Afghanistan, and Leo:

"He makes me feel whole," Said Walker. "I had no idea what was wrong with me. I didn't even know I had an issue until I stopped doing some of the things I normally did. I stayed home -- I call it 'hermiting." I felt the worst pressure I ever felt in my life, and started thinking of ways to numb it -- drinking, pain pills, or even cutting myself.

"My psychiatrist and psychologist, they all suggested a dog. It's given me a whole different outlook, from not wanting to go anywhere or get up at all, to actually enjoying being out. I don't know how he does it, but Leo gets me."

Matching the pet with the vet is an exhaustive process, because Bicker and her staff are meticulous about making the match perfect based on personalities and needs. Since its creation in the early 1990s, ARF has saved over 32,000 dogs ands cats. In the past four years, only about 300 of them have been placed with veterans. There is also a geographic limitations, as currently all the services take place in ARF's Walnut Creek, Calif. headquarters.

"As word gets around, we'll be able to match vets with dogs wherever they are, just by working with local shelters," La Russa said.

Soon, "matchmakers" in other places could share the joy felt by Bicker "every time I see a veteran walk out of ARF with a dog."

"I feel there is a little bit more magic in the world," she added.

Tom Singer is a reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog Change for a Nickel. He can also be found on Twitter @Tom_Singer. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.