Meet This Able Veteran Graduate Denise Durepos

Denise Durepos is one of the latest veterans to complete This Able Veteran’s Trauma Resiliency Program held in October 2023 in Carbondale, Illinois. At the end of the program, Durepos was paired with her service dog, Aspen.

“I had never owned a dog before, so I guess you could say I did not know much about dogs in general. But, since returning home from my time with This Able Veteran, Aspen now sleeps with me in my bed. That is a true indicator of how much I have fallen in love with him. He is the most amazing dog in the world,” says Durepos.

Durepos grew up in a rural community in New Mexico where there was not much opportunity for professional growth.
“My father spent his military career in the US Airforce, so my family was naturally military oriented. My sister had joined the air force one year before me and my brother joined the Navy six months after me. I was only 17 years old, but I was ready to see the world,” she said.

Durepos military career initially began in Omaha, Nebraska, but she soon went overseas and spent the next ten years traveling Europe, the Middle East, and Africa.

“I was in the Air Force in the Communications department and worked as a computer operator. I was there at the beginning of the Internet, so it was an exciting time of life. I remember I had a top-secret security clearance and I sent messages all over the world,” Durepos said.

Durepos’ 13-year military career took her to Desert Storm but afterward, the military had a drawdown encouraging personnel to leave. She left the military and got her bachelor’s degree in psychology and communicative disorders from the University of New Mexico. She also received her master’s degree in Speech Language Pathology from the same university. Durepos went on to work in public schools in behavior intervention programs with students who had been in foster care and who had been in and out of the juvenile detention system.

“I did that work for thirteen years, but at one point when I had a lot going on in both my personal and professional life, I had a subsequent breakdown. I was diagnosed with PTSD. With the help of some wonderful doctors, I slowly recovered. Eventually I was released, but I knew I was not out of the woods yet,” she said.

“When the pandemic happened, I really started to isolate myself, and I knew that was not good for me at all. I felt like if I could get into a program that would provide me with a service dog, I could maybe get the help I needed,” Durepos said.

Durepos’s sister encouraged her to apply to This Able Veteran’s Trauma Resilience Program.

“I had gone online and looked at all the different service dog organizations, and This Able Veteran sounded like the most knowledgeable about service dogs. They also understood veterans suffering from PTSD. So, I applied and eventually, I was accepted into the program,” she said.

Durepos was initially full of self-doubt wondering if she could take care of another life. But with encouragement from her sister and from others, she committed to the program.

“If other veterans are trying to decide if This Able Veteran’s program is a good fit for them, I would encourage them to just go with it and watch it work wonders. The program is amazing. But there will be times when you feel as if you are on a roller coaster ride. You might not feel like you understand, but I encourage you to stay with it. I now feel like I am going in the direction of helping other people now. I have not been there in a long time,” Durepos said.

As for the staff and volunteers who she met while attending the Trauma Resilience Program, Durepos has nothing but positive things to say.

“Every single person I met, to the people who picked up the dog poop, the board members, and dog trainers – everyone of them was kind. That was a super empowering feeling to be in the company of so many who wanted nothing but the best for me. All I can say is that if applicants do not apply for the program, they are definitely missing a life-changing experience,” said Durepos.

In her spare time, Durepos is building an agility course for Aspen in her backyard. She and Aspen love to hike and one of her goals is to visit as many of the United States national parks as possible.

If you would like to learn more about This Able Veteran and its mission, please visit To learn how you can support This Able Veteran, visit If you are a veteran or know a veteran who could benefit from This Able Veteran’s services, please contact [email protected].

#veterans #nonprofit #veteranlove #servicedogs #donate #thisableveteran #ptsd


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Spotlight on Veteran Brad Lam

Brad Lam completed the Trauma Resiliency Program at This Able Veteran in the fall of 2022.  At the end of the program, he was paired with his service dog Charity.  Lam says applying for the Trauma Resiliency Program was one of the best decisions he has ever made other than marrying his wife Brooke, whom he has been together with for 15 years.  Brad, Brooke, and Charity live in Carbondale, Illinois.

“I enlisted when I was 17 years old, and my initial goal was to be a career soldier.  I served in the U.S. Army for four years as a heavy equipment repairer.  I was with the 642nd Engineer Battalion in Ft. Devens, Massachusetts, and then with the 326th Engineer Battalion in Ft. Campbell, Kentucky.  While there, I attended Air Assault School,” said Lam.

Within two and a half years Lam was promoted to Sergeant .  In 1987, he was deployed to Korea for a year and served with the 44th Engineer Battalion.  Lam decided to ETS from active duty after hearing from his Chief Warrant Officer that the Army was going to downsize.  Lam continued to serve with the Illinois National Guard for two years.  The Army did start downsizing after the Cold War, which affected a lot of soldiers whom Lam served with.

“I made the right choice,” he said.

After Lam left active duty, he was hired as a mechanic for the City of Carbondale.  During this time, he also pursued a childhood dream of becoming a firefighter.

“It took six years before a firefighter position was available and in 1996, I was hired as firefighter.  It was the job I wanted it to be, but later in my career, my body started breaking down, both mentally and physically.  I experienced trauma as a child as well as in the military, and this continued in the fire service where there were also numerous traumatic incidents that started taking a toll on me. I came from the old school of “suck it up” and did not talk about things.  However, during my last three years of fire service, I started having nightmares and more suicidal ideations. My coping mechanisms were to isolate and self-medicate,” said Lam.

In May of 2021, Lam went to a rehab center where the physician diagnosed him with complex PTSD, among other things.  The physician said he was a perfect candidate for a service dog, which resonated with Lam as he has loved dogs throughout his life.

“Brooke and I had already been a strong supporter of This Able Veteran by donating to them throughout the years, so when the doctor told me I could benefit from having a service dog, I immediately thought of This Able Veteran,” said Lam.

Lam shares that he was apprehensive after he was chosen for the class of 2022 because he felt he was not worthy as other veterans who were suffering.

“Even though I did not feel worthy, I was ecstatic about being chosen.  After going through the Trauma Resiliency Program, I can say it topped everything I learned during rehab.  They taught me to live in the moment and learn skills to put my past behind me.  I could not speak more highly of This Able Veteran, and I encourage other veterans to apply for the program,” he said.

For the 2023 Trauma Resiliency Program, Lam served as the class mentor.

“It was an honor to have been asked.”

Lam wants to bring more service-oriented projects into his life.  Lam retired from the City of Carbondale after 32 years. For 25 of those years, he served as a firefighter where he obtained the rank of Captain.  Lam is currently in his fifth term as the Carbondale Township Highway Commissioner.

When he is not doing service work, Lam and Charity enjoy walking, hiking and entering 5ks and 10ks.  Brad and Brooke have a blended family of three adult children and three grandchildren.

If you would like to learn more about This Able Veteran and its mission, please visit To learn how you can support This Able Veteran, visit If you are a veteran or know a veteran who could benefit from This Able Veteran’s services, please contact [email protected].

#veterans #nonprofit #veteranlove #servicedogs #donate #thisableveteran #ptsd





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This Able Veteran’s Service Dog Trainer Elise and Her Cross-Country Road-Trip Adventure

Service dog trainer, Elise Ratajczyk and actor, Jason Spisak, walking to lunch in Carbondale during the Salukicon event.

Pippin resting on the trail in Arizona.

Elise, Jason and Malea

On the hiking trail with Pippin.

Elise and Pippin enjoyed their 5,000 mile trip often stopping at small attractions and oddities along the way as they traveled on Route 66.

Pippin enjoyed camping along the way to California and loves the great outdoors!

One of the quirky places they came to was the Blue Whale of Catoosa, Oklahoma, a giant waterfront structure build in the 1970s. Elise says Pippin wasn’t sure what he and his buddy were posing in front of, but they are always game for anything.

Pippin proudly poses in front of Cadillac Ranch and the Second Amendment Cowboy in Texas.

Elise Ratajczk has been a service dog trainer for This Able Veteran since 2021. During this time, Elise has met several famous people while out training, some of which include politicians and celebrities. This past spring while attending SalukiCon at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale, Elise met Jason Spisak, an actor, producer, computer programmer in animation and video games, and producer and founding member of Blackchalk Productions.

Many fans know Spisak through his successful voice-over career, which spans more than 27 years. Jason has created the voices of Silco in Arcane, The Joker in Batman Hush, Lux Bonteri and Cristo on “Star Wars: Clone Wars,” the Lego Joker in two Warner Brothers animated movies, Kid Flash/Wally West on “Young Justice,” Scorpion in Amazing Spider-Man and Spider-Man for PS4, the voice of the disembodied Silias for “Vampire Diaries” on CW, Justin Hammer in Disney XD “Avengers Assemble,” Silico on “Power Puff Girls,” Paralon in “Transformers,” and loads more.

Jason says that while he was at SalukiCon in Carbondale last spring, he met Elise and
Edmond (the black poodle she was training) cosplaying characters from one of the shows Jason is in. He says that caught his attention.

“Whenever I travel, I hate sitting in my hotel room during my time off. I like to find fans who can recommend good local restaurants and then I invite them to join me for lunch,” said Spisak.

Elise said she is always up for an adventure, so when Spisak asked where to go for lunch, she and her friend Malea invited him to go to nearby Blend Tea and Crepe Lounge.

“I watched Elise work with Edmond and was in awe of how she trained him despite the crowd of people surrounding us. She really inspired me and as we talked over lunch, I realized she and Malea are the type of folks I like to have in my life,” said Spisak.

As they ate and talked, Elise shared her passion for This Able Veteran with Jason and the work she does training service dogs for veterans with PTSD.

“It became clear to me early on that This Able Veteran service dog trainers have a true gift. They don’t view dogs as animals. They view and treat the service dogs as their peers, which was lovely to watch. Elise told me that people often need a friend in their lives, sometimes physically and emotionally. That struck a chord in me,” said Spisak.

Malea and Elise also shared their upcoming summer road trip plans with Spisak, which included a trip to California to work at Paramount Studios. Spisak realized their tripwould take them right by Flagstaff, Arizona, which is his home.

“I thought it would be great to give them a rest from the road and show them Flagstaff. Plus, we could help stretch the service dog’s legs by taking him on a hike,” he said.

The trainers rotate the service dogs in their care, to ensure that they can all be handled by different people and experience different environments. By the time they set off for their trip, Elise had rotated with Edmond, the black poodle, to Pippin, the yellow lab.

“Pippin is a lovely boy. During our hike, Elise asked him to carry a stick as long as his body. It was hard not to laugh as we watched him try to navigate the trail. It was as if it were his duty. He was such a good boy in a brand-new space,” said Spisak.

When asked what he thought about Elise and Malea’s trip across the country with Pippin, Spisak did not hesitate.

“Elise has a genuine heart, and she inspires us. To take a service dog 5,000 miles across the country is amazing. She makes sure she is doing the right thing for the veteran on the other side of the process by the amount of time, care and effort she and her team puts forth with the service dogs. It’s a beautiful relationship and I am so honored to have established a new friendship with Malea, Elise, and Pippin,” said Spisak.

Spisak was so moved by the story of This Able Veteran, he immediately became a new fan and donor to the organization. To learn how you can support This Able Veteran, visit

#veterans #nonprofit #veteranlove #servicedogs #donate #thisableveteran #ptsd



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This Able Veteran Service Dog and Trainer Graduate Together

We don’t say it lightly when we emphasize how much all of our trainers care about This Able Veteran’s dogs in training. They are such a force; a team that works tirelessly 24/7 the entirety of the 18 months it takes to raise one class of working dogs.

One of our trainers recently graduated Southern Illinois University with a Bachelor of Science in Animal Science that she fully plans on using to better the lives of the animals in her care, including  TAV dogs. She brought the dogs with her to every class she took every day for two years, just to make sure they could be trained in public access work while she was actively studying.

On graduation day, Elise Ratajczyk walked up on stage with the company of the service dog in training she was currently assigned. Her graduation cap sported the This Able Veteran’s logo to show just how proud she is to be part of something so meaningful to these veteran’s lives. She stresses that “I wouldn’t be where I am without the patience of my team, the endless hours of my peers and Behesha teaching me everything I know, and their flexibility in helping me finish up my degree.”

Stay tuned for upcoming posts of Elise as she  takes an epic cross-country road trip with This Able Veteran’s service dog, Pippin.

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This Able Veteran Spotlight: Meet Dani Figueroa, This Able Veteran Graduate, and Her Dog, Valor

Dani Figueroa completed the Trauma Resiliency Program at This Able Veteran (TAV) in the fall of 2020.  At the end of the program, she was paired with her service dog, Valor.  Dani is currently an artist in residence in Lorton, Virginia, with the Workhouse Military in the Arts Initiative (WMAI) program, which is a program for active or retired service members who want to create original works of art in a collaborative environment.  Dani credits This Able Veteran as the catalyst for becoming an artist in residence. 
“As I prepared to go to TAV’s 21-day Trauma Resiliency Program, I debated about whether to take my guitar.  I was anxious about traveling for the first time with a service dog during the pandemic, and only wanted to travel light,” said Figueroa.
In the months before TAV’s program, the veterans are paired with mentors who work with the veterans before and during the program.  Figueroa was paired with Kim DeFiori (and her dog, Thor) and they quickly connected.
“Kim talked to me about the importance of self-care, especially during the course, so I trusted her and brought my guitar.  It was then I realized music as an important self-care tool that helps me stay in the moment.  On the night I graduated, and was officially paired with my service dog, I wondered,  “What would it be like to Create With Valor?”  This thought was like a coin, because it had two sides.  (What would it be like to create with him physically by my side, but also with bravery or value?),“ said Figueroa.
After her graduation from TAV’s program, Figueroa was selected to be an artist in residence with WMAI.
“My residency ends in June with a final show that will run for three months.  It will combine music and visual art.  The title I’ve given it is “Together.”  It’s about strength and growth, and what happens when there’s connection, service, and support.  I consider TAV to be a huge contributing factor to the path I am currently on with my art,”  said Figueroa.
Figueroa says that through TAV’s dog training and the 21-day Trauma Resiliency Program, she now has the tools to take over after Valor has stepped in.
“I belong to a strong pack not only with myself and Valor, also with my peers, and with the staff that I can turn to and lean on in time of need.  I can now say my life and focus, as a result of TAV and Valor, are about the ‘This-Ability’ instead of the ‘Dis-Ability,’” she said.
Figueroa would highly encourage other veterans suffering from PTSD to apply for TAV’s Trauma Resiliency Program.
“It took me a very long time to apply.  My belief was that I didn’t have it as bad as other military members, so I didn’t rate a service dog.  I am grateful I took that step and sent in my application.  I could never have imagined living a healthier more connected life,”  said Figueroa.
Since Valor has been in her life, she has experienced so much joy with him.
“There are two amazing moments that rise to the top for me.  One, is having been a mentor; and two, having played at Kim’s wedding.  It was so amazing to have shared that moment with her and her wife, with all of our service dogs, and to meet their extended families and close friends.” she said. 
Figueroa has created a website,, with the intention to pay it forward through art sales and commissions, and to highlight the organizations that have given so much to her and others.  This Able Veteran highly encourages its readers to visit and see photos of Figueroa and Valor along with her artwork, and blog.  She also has listed This Able Veteran and Victor Pet Foods as organizations she supports.
If you would like to learn more about This Able Veteran and its mission, please visit  To learn how you can support This Able Veteran, visit
#veterans #nonprofit #veteranlove #servicedogs #donate #thisableveteran #ptsd
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Massac Quilters Guild Raises Donations for This Able Veteran Six Years in a Row

Massac Quilter’s Guild president Janet Mittendorf (third from left, front row) presents the group’s donation to This Able Veteran executive director Rebecca Renshaw. The group raised $2,442 during the 2023 AQS Paducah Quilt Show with its raffle of two quilts. Guild members present are Irene Reising, Charlene Sirmer, Sarah Crim, Martha Bowman, Diane Block, Faith Hammel, and Lorraine Ashby.


The members of the Massac Quilters Guild have long believed in the power of giving back to others. Over the years, they have created a variety of items to help others — from pillowcase dresses, items for Lourdes Hospice, to pillowcases for area nursing homes.

“Those things were good,” said president Janet Mittendorf. “But we decided we wanted to do something that would make a bigger difference.”

The group decided that would be by helping veterans, but they weren’t sure how to find a local organization.

And then, Mittendorf attended a Red Hats Society meeting where This Able Veteran representatives were speaking and passing out brochures.

“I thought their program sounded amazing, so I contacted them,” Mittendorf said. “We decided we wanted to find a place that was helping veterans and we knew they were getting the help they need. We’ve found something and stuck with it.”

That was 2017 since the partnership began. Since then, Massac Quilters Guild has made and raffled off quilts, raising thousands of dollars for the veterans’ organization. That latest donation was presented to This Able Veteran executive director Rebecca Renshaw on June 5.

The raffling of two quilts raised $2,442.80 during the 2023 AQS Paducah Quilt Show.

Those funds are used by This Able Veteran to train service dogs for U.S. military veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.

Headquartered in Carbondale, This Able Veteran has been helping veterans since 2011. Serving veterans from around the country, it was founded by Behesha Doan, who is the organization’s training director and the owner of Extreme K-9. As a trauma survivor, Doan brings insight to how a correctly trained service dog, combined with a trauma resiliency program, can make a difference in the lives of those suffering from post-traumatic stress, traumatic brain injuries and those with co-occurring substance abuse. Through This Able Veteran, Doan has developed a veteran-centric model of care that involves the veterans, their clinicians, the service dogs and This Able Veteran.

Renshaw explained the training program costs over $30,000 for each service dog as they get the service dogs as puppies to start training them right away. The dogs go home every night with a trainer and are specially trained for each veteran.

“There’s a very strenuous process we go through to select both the veterans and the dogs. Service dogs are selected based on their temperament, structural soundness, proven lineage of healthy genetics and several other qualifications. Veterans must fill out an online application to be considered for the program,” Renshaw emphasized.

“Once selected, we find out what they need,” Renshaw said. “We pair the dog with the veteran based on where the veteran lives, the veteran’s lifestyle, and the temperament of them both. We train that dog for that veteran specifically.”

During its almost 12-year history, This Able Veteran has graduated 80 pairs of dogs and veterans. The next class is set to graduate in late October.

“It’s a great thing to be a part of,” Mittendorf said.

Massac Quilters Guild members have already begun the work on the quilt they will be raffling off during the 2024 AQS Paducah Quilt Show. The fabric and other materials will be donated allowing proceeds to go to This Able Veteran. The members divvy up the work of each block and then put it all together by January.

“Ticket sales will begin in February. Tickets are $1 each and available from guild members or during the April quilt show, during which AQS allows us to sell tickets at the Julian Carroll Convention Center,” said Mittendorf.

The Massac Quilters Guild was organized in 1983 to encourage interest in all phases of quilting. The group meets the first Monday of the month at the Metropolis Community Center at 9:30 a.m. with doors opening at 9 a.m. Meetings are held the second Monday if the meeting day falls on a holiday.

“We’re a very small group, but we try to get a lot done,” Mittendorf said.

For more information on This Able Veteran, visit

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