Last summer, Steve Andersen went on a Patriot Guard mission to attend a funeral of a post-9/11 veteran who had committed suicide. The director of American Legion Riders Chapter 560 in Zimmerman, Minn., Andersen said the veteran left behind two small children “maybe ages 5 and 1” who attended the funeral.
“Watching that little boy trying to be as brave as he could (during the funeral) was as heart-wrenching as anything I’ve ever seen,” Andersen said.
The experience prompted Andersen to look for ways his chapter could help other struggling veterans find a way other than suicide to deal with their situation. “We donate to (The American Legion Legacy Fund), and that takes care of the children of fallen military,” Andersen said. “But after that funeral, I said ‘Let’s keep dad here. How can we do that?’”
Andersen began doing research on post-traumatic stress disorder treatment methods for which the chapter could start raising funds. “I saw several things about service dogs and what a difference they’ve made,” he said. “That sounded good to me. And our chapter wanted to keep what we were doing as local as possible.”
Through the research the chapter came across Patriot Assistance Dogs (PAD), a training program based in Detroit Lakes, Minn. PAD prepares dogs to assist veterans who have been diagnosed with PTSD, traumatic brain injury or a related psychiatric issue. Founded by trainer Linda Wiedewitsch, PAD has paired up around 100 service dogs with veterans – at no cost to the veteran – since its founding in 2011. It costs approximately $10,000 to train and pair up a dog.
“A lot of guys who’ve left the military or are getting out now are having some problems,” Andersen said. “We wanted to do something for our veterans, and this seemed like a good idea.”
When Chapter 560 was chartered in December 2015, Andersen applied for and was granted a limited state gaming license that allows the chapter to conduct five bingo events a year at various venues. Using Facebook to advertise their events, the chapter was able to raise $10,000 and present it to PAD Jan. 28.
“People have found out why we’re raising the money – 100 percent of what we take in goes back to charity – and we’re starting to see a following,” Andersen said. “We’ve got people asking us where we’re going to be next.”
Andersen said the chapter, which is up to over 30 members, is just getting started. “We’ve got more events coming up, so we plan on giving a lot more money away this year,” he said. “We’re just trying to make a difference in our little part of the world.”