Nov. 5, a brisk early Saturday morning near the merry-go-round in Griffith Park. Diego Ortiz of PAWS/LA was standing in front of a white tarp trying to get the attention of two dozen dogs and their guardians. Since 1989, the nonprofit has been dedicated to preserving the healing benefits of animal companionship for low-income elderly and others facing life-threatening illnesses like HIV/AIDS. But today he was talking about the launching of a new program called Project Petstrong geared to veterans suffering from PTSD. And part of the kickoff was with a two-mile “pets’ hike” in the sprawling urban park.

“There are 1.9 million veterans in California, 350,000 in Los Angeles County alone,” he said. “And according to PAWS/LA estimates, there are approximately 6,000 low-income veterans with PTSD and/or depression who count on their companion animals to cope with the devastating effects of PTSD. That’s 6,000 just in LA County. That’s why we started Project Petstrong.”

Ortiz pointed out that more than two-thirds of today’s veterans reported difficulties adjusting back to civilian life. And up to 45 percent of post 9/11 veterans suffer from PTSD, with nearly 14 percent demonstrating suicidal tendencies. “As we all know, our companion animals can bring us out of the darkness,” he said. “They can take us out of that dark place, and give us a reason to live.”

Kevin Lewandowski, a veteran of the U.S. Air Force who was homeless for 28 years, spoke passionately about his transformation out of that darkness and addiction. He testified how living on the street had left him with a “hardened heart.” It was during a three-year stint in two California state prisons that he finally turned his life over to God, returning to the Catholic faith of his youth.

But after serving his sentence and even finding permanent housing in Los Angeles, the Philadelphia native found himself terribly lonely and on the edge of going back to his former destructive lifestyle.

That’s when a black five-pound Reindeer Chihuahua named Miss Bella came into his life.

“Since I’ve had her, I can’t explain it, but she ripped down that hardened heart that I had,” said Lewandowski. “And I cried for the first time in 20 years. You know, good tears. Just the love that she gives me.

“I was in a dark place of depression. I had all these dark thoughts. And that doesn’t happen anymore because she keeps my mind occupied. In my apartment, I’m always talking to her: ‘Miss Bella, what are you doing?’ She does something silly and I’m laughing.

“That’s why I know that somebody with PTSD, it will help them,” he said. “And I’m here to testify that it does work. You get this dog in your life, and they just transform you. And they transformed me to a much better person that I was before.”   

Dog hike

A little after half-past-nine, hikers with their Golden Retrievers, Black Labs, Chihuahuas, Dalmatian and English Bulldog started up a cracked asphalt road to where the old Griffith Park Zoo stood from 1912 to 1966. The Oak-Walnut woodlands above the merry-go-round soon gave way to shades of green and brown chaparral, the dominant plant of these Santa Monica Mountains.

The grade was enough to get at least the guardians breathing harder. Soon they and their dogs were stretched out into small groups. Miss Bella and Lewandowski were towards the back, pacing themselves like they were in a marathon.

Near 10 o’clock, the road narrowed and turned to dirt, with a beautiful view of Los Angeles and the San Gabriel Mountain in the distance. Miss Bella, her legs moving like a machine on overdrive, had now moved to the lead. Meanwhile, the English Bulldog simply flopped on the ground, legs spread out, panting. Her handler — a muscular middle-age guy wearing a black T-shirt with a yellow insignia on the back, “1st Battalion, 9th Marines” — tried to coax his charge up, with no luck.

It was better, of course, going down, with Miss Bella leading most of the way. But the former Marine had to carry his pouch a few times. And the Golden Retrievers and Black Labs seemed a little beat, too, lying on grass with the English Bulldog after the 90-minute hilly hike.

Coming-home trauma

The bulldog’s name turned out to be Smedley Butler, after a legendary Marine Corps General. His guardian was 49-year-old William Chau. He mustered out in September 1994 after far-flung deployments.

“I remember my mother when I got off active duty, she was afraid of me,” he said. “I’d wake up aggressive, you know, on the defensive. It’s kind of a self-preservation thing. I literally had just come off a deployment all over the western Pacific. You don’t have to be in combat, you just see a lot of inhumanity. Young kids begging on the street. Girls in their early teens being forced into prostitution for survival.

“It’s just crazy. You get exposed to a lot of cruelty that you don’t see in the U.S.”

So Chau thought Project Petstrong was awesome.

“A lot of young warriors are getting off active duty. They really don’t have a support network at home. They just don’t have somebody there for them,” he pointed out. “And pets are always going to be there for you. So to have basically an animal that just loves you unconditionally is just a tremendous psychological and emotional help.”

Yvette Kelley, a retired U.S. Army colonel and current president and CEO of New Directions for Veterans, went on the Griffith Park hike even though she doesn’t have a pet. She had heard about the launch of Project Petsmart and just wanted to support it.

Kelley’s 30-year military career, which ended in 2013, mostly involved flying helicopters. Her combat contingency operations included Panama, Somalia, Kuwait, Iraq and Afghanistan. But she agrees you don’t have to experience combat to wind up coming home with serious problems.

“We help over 1,200 veterans a year at New Directions,” she reported. “But a lot of these guys have just served during peacetime. They’ve never been deployed. But that still doesn’t mean that they’re not going to end up homeless, that they’re not going to be addicted to substances or alcohol, or even have PTSD or military sexual trauma. That doesn’t have to occur in a combat condition.”

About Project Petstrong, Kelley believes many hurt veterans will really respond to caring for a dog or cat. She hopes the program will be widely promoted for veterans to learn about it.

“About half of the homeless veterans that we have on Los Angeles streets are the Vietnam era vets,” she said. “So these are guys who have had problems, issues like PTSD for decades now. And we can’t repeat that pattern. That’s just not right.

“With this pet project, I see a lot of care, a lot of compassion. Kevin [Lewandowski] mentioned about his situation how you’re looking outside of yourself with a pet. When you’re a soldier, an airman, a sailor or a Marine, you’re used to looking out for your brother or your sister.

“And so here again you’re focusing outward from yourself caring for a pet,” she said. “So I think there’s a lot of therapeutic value in that.”     

‘Love of Jesus’

Care, compassion and concern for others have become an integral part of Lewandowski’s life — and not only for Miss Bella.

He goes to the weekday 7 a.m. Mass at the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels, where he now works in the parish’s outreach program, making sandwiches and stocking the food bank. He has become a fourth-degree Knight of Columbus and officer. And he’s the spiritual advisor for the Society of St. Vincent de Paul’s Our Lady of the Angels Conference.

Last year after reconciling with his mother, he returned to see her and also Pope Francis during a visit to Philadelphia. “He went right on by us in Logan’s Circle, and he blessed Bella and me,” he told Angelus News. “We were pretty close, so I think he spotted us. But even if he didn’t, who would have thought that a homeless person, 28 years in the streets, that only by God’s divine intervention that I get sober and be in the presence of the pope?”

After a moment, he looked into the dark marble eyes of the Reindeer Chihuahua he was holding. “I have a special love for her that I’ve never had for any animal,” he said. “I didn’t want a dog, nothing to do with one. I thought people who feed a dog and dressed a dog were nuts.

“But I feel it now,” he admitted in a softer voice. “And when I look at her, I see the love of Jesus. I see the love of Jesus because I know she’s a gift from God. Because I prayed about my loneliness. And I’m not lonely anymore.”

Click here to read more about the struggles facing returning veterans.