Golden retriever puppies already can melt an audience, but bring out puppies wearing camouflage vests, carried by veterans, and they nearly bring the house down.
That was the response on Friday when Lutheran Church Charities, which started the Addison-based Comfort Dog Ministry, launched its newest outreach: Kare-9 Ministry, designed to serve active military, veterans and their families.
The announcement of the new program came at the end of the national convention for the Comfort Dog ministry, held at Harper College in Palatine, which began offering a training course for handlers in January.
Tim Hetzner, executive director of Lutheran Church Charities, described the growing number of veterans hospitals and military events the Comfort Dogs have been invited to over the last few years, as well as the Air Force Yellow Ribbon weekends.
"But the thing that pushed me over the edge was when I learned that 22 veterans commit suicide every day. That's a Sandy Hook, every day," Hetzner said, referring to the Connecticut school shooting in 2012.
Lutheran Church Charities started the Comfort Dog ministry in 2008, in the wake of the shooting at Northern Illinois University.
The organization started with four golden retrievers and now have 80 trained across the country.
The ministry gained national attention when its handlers were the first to arrive in Newtown, Connecticut, after the shooting of students and teachers at Sandy Hook Elementary School. The comfort dogs provided so much therapy for students and their families, the ministry now has two dogs permanently stationed in the community.
However, the new Kare-9 Ministry will be aimed at helping veterans struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, substance abuse and moral injury, which the ministry defines as the result of suppressed and unresolved grief from actions that occurred during military service.
Veterans themselves will be placed with golden retriever pups and trained as handlers, to go out to veterans hospitals, visit families and attend events.
"They will work and live together," Hetzner said, "and then two vets will be teamed up in the military buddy system to go out and make calls. Veterans will be using their dogs to serve other veterans."
At the convention, three veterans who already had puppies -- called recruits -- were introduced. Then seven more puppies who soon will be placed with veterans in the Minneapolis area were introduced with their handlers.
Hetzner explained that the dogs will be trained with military commands, wear camouflage vests, work their way up from recruits to privates and even learn to salute.
Each puppy will be named after a military dog and lost its life in the line of service.
"We're doing it as a tribute to military dogs," Hetzner said, "but also as an icebreaker, for vets to start talking."
Lutheran Church Charities is partnering with Military Outreach USA, based in Northbrook, to support the ministry.
One of its founders, retired Maj. Gen. James Mukoyama of Chicago, spoke at the convention, in particular about the needs of veterans.
"Part of the healing process from moral injury and post-traumatic stress disorder is to feel loved and valued," Mukoyama said. "The comfort dogs give off a type of peace -- and unconditional love."