Queens veteran and service dog teach others to move forward

Captain James Van Thach and his dog, Liz. (Courtesy of Captain James Van Thach)
Captain James Van Thach and his dog, Liz. (Courtesy of Captain James Van Thach)

Captain James Van Thach was in his 30s, a recent law grad and ready for two years as a soldier in Iraq.

When he came home, he was a disabled veteran moving in with his parents.

“I felt like a shell of myself,” Van Thach told Metro of his return to New York in 2008 after being injured two separate times in Iraq.

The Queens native is working his way toward recovery with the help of Liz, a mixed Labrador and golden retriever service dog, and helping others do the same.

Both will be honored Thursday night at the Hearts and Heroes Gala in Manhattan.

Van Thach, 37, who lives in Bellerose, was first injured by an improvised explosive device, then again when a rocket exploded steps away, leaving him with a traumatic brain injury, blurred vision in his left eye and post-traumatic stress disorder.  

He received both a Bronze Star and Purple Heart.

Canine Companions for Independence, a Medford, N.Y., group that matches people with disabilities with dogs, set him up with Liz last year.

“I take 21 pills a day just to survive,” he said. “If I drop my pills or my pill bottle, I’m not able to pick them up. I can give her the command, she can pick up the item off the ground, hold it in her mouth, not chew it or anything, and release it in my hand.”

Liz also grabs clothes, keys or anything else that he needs, he said.

He added, “It’s a life saver. I’ve gained more independence.”

Earlier this year, he traveled to Afghanistan with a group called Troops First Foundation, which runs Operation Proper Exit.

He told about 1,500 soldiers about his experiences, knowing many might be struggling with psychological and physical stresses or even suicidal thoughts.

“Seek help and move forward in your life, like I am,” he told them.

Thursday, Liz will be by his side at the gala.

“She’s my ticket in,” he said.


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