By Jason Cato

The combat Army veteran holed up inside his house for more than a year, leaving only for brief missions to the grocery store or to take his young son to a park.

He feared crowds and suffered constant flashbacks of the Iraq war. His marriage dissolved as he battled yet another round of cancer.

Then a special dog entered his life.

“I wouldn’t be here right now if it wasn’t for Camo and the different nonprofits that supply these dogs,” Tom Cannon, 44, of Allentown, Lehigh County, told more than 600 people Wednesday who attended the 17th annual Veterans Day breakfast at Duquesne University hosted by the Veterans Leadership Program of Western Pennsylvania.

“It lets me be human again. It lets me feel like I can do things.”

The Veterans Leadership Program began a campaign to raise money to provide similar certified service dogs to veterans in need in the Pittsburgh region.

The cost for each trained dog is $22,000. The group on Wednesday raised enough money for eight — with the Pittsburgh Foundation paying for five service dogs and two covered by the Allegheny Financial Group and partner James Hohman and his wife, Audrey.

Anthony “Tony” Accamando Jr., an Army veteran of the Vietnam War and founder of the Veterans Leadership Program as well as Upper St. Clair-based Veterans’ Cable Services, said the goal is to help local veterans through a partnership with Guardian Angels Medical Service Dogs Inc. The Williston, Fla.-based outfit provided Cannon with Camo, his German Shepherd service dog.

“We’re trying to get them right here in Western Pennsylvania,” said Accamando, 71, of Eighty Four, Washington County. “We’re going to be around for a while. We’re going to get a lot of dogs for a lot of vets and change the way people think about these vets.”

According to the Department of Veterans Affairs:

• Between 11 percent and 20 percent of veterans who served in wars in Afghanistan and Iraq suffer Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD;

• An average of 22 veterans, from all wars and service, commit suicide each day.

Getting dogs to those veterans is imperative, said Dan Pultz, who served in the Marines during the Vietnam era and works with veterans through the Semper Fi Odyssey transition program in Somerset County.

“We want to plant a seed here in Pittsburgh that might grow to other cities,” Pultz, 72, of the North Side said of the effort to raise money for service dogs for veterans, particularly those at risk of suicide. “Those are the guys we want to find and get a dog with them.”

Cannon said he contacted Guardian Angels when he realized he needed help.

Camo came into his life almost seven months ago. Cannon said he bonded with the dog instantly.

On Wednesday, Camo laid at Cannon’s feet under a banquet table and later on stage inside the student union. At times, he sat on Cannon’s foot to calm him or stood as a barrier when strangers thanked Cannon for his service and for sharing his story.

Part of Cannon’s motivation to find a service dog was to get better. A bigger part, he said, was to show his 4-year-old son, Sage, that it is possible to overcome life’s challenges.

Cannon had overcome a bout with cancer and is living with non-Hodgkin lymphoma. A third cancer diagnosis came after Camo arrived.

The dog helped the veteran through a brutal round of chemotherapy treatments. He retrieved Cannon’s medications and bottles of water, when needed.

“(He) helps in so many ways, too many to list,” he said.

Jason Cato is a writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at 412-320-7936 or jcato@tribweb.com.

Reprinted from Pittsburgh’s Trib Total Media.