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Jane Velez-Mitchell

Encore: Saving Soldiers; Pet Therapy; Soldier Support; Bake Me a Wish

Aired December 31, 2008 - 19:00   ET


JANE VALEZ-MITCHELL, CNN HEADLINE ANCHOR, ISSUES: Tonight, a special ISSUES presentation, honoring the brave men, women and animals of the United States military. With two unpopular wars going on, it`s easy to get wrapped up in the politics. But no matter what your beliefs, you can still support our troops. So tonight, I`ll showcase some of their amazing stories, from a woman who painted life-size portraits of fallen Iraq war veterans to a man determined to make the soldiers` uniforms safer, to a dog who risked his life sniffing for bombs in Iraq.
And I`ll show you how you can help our men and women in uniform during this holiday season. All this, and lots more on this very special edition of ISSUES.

The Iraq war, returning to the world stage as a major issue. President-Elect Barack Obama has pledged to wind the war down and bring our troops home. No matter where you stand on the war, we can all agree it`s absolutely crucial that our men and women in uniform are given the very best resources and treatment.

So tonight, I`m going to try to remove the politics and just have an honest look at our brave troops fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the people - and animals, who are helping them. I`ll have their incredible stories and I will show you ways that you, yes, you can help. We begin with the Lima Company Marine Reserve Unit.

In 2005, Lima went to Iraq for its first tour; 22 marines and one member of the Navy never came home. Out of the 23, 17 were from Ohio. The death of those troops hit people in Ohio very, very hard, including one woman from Columbus.


ANITA MILLER, ARTIST: Peace, understanding, acceptance, forgiveness.

VELEZ-MITCHELL (voice over): Anita Miller will never forget hearing the news about Lima Company.

MILLER: My heart tore just like the rest of Ohioans tore and ached for those families and for those fallen.

VELEZ-MITCHELL: The Ohio-based Marine Reserve Unit, once known as Lucky Lima, has been one of the hardest hit, losing the most members fighting in Iraq, more than any other U.S. military company.

MILLER: Inner growth, communications.

VELEZ-MITCHELL: Then one morning, Anita, a painter, woke up transfixed by a dream.

MILLER: I saw eight life size paintings arranged in an octagon in the statehouse rotunda. And I knew that on the front of those paintings were portraits of the Lima Company Marines.

VELEZ-MITCHELL: The vision was a larger-than-life tribute to the fallen soldiers.

MILLER: I don`t have the money. I don`t have the time. I don`t have the space. I don`t have the resources. I don`t have the contacts. I wouldn`t know how to do any of that.

VELEZ-MITCHELL: Anita couldn`t let it go.

MILLER: Friendship, fullness.

VELEZ-MITCHELL: She contacted the Marines, tracked down family members. And then she took out a home equity loan to build an addition to her study to build the life size portraits.

MILLER: One by one, the families started calling me and bringing me pictures of their child, telling me stories about their son. This would be a great healing for these families if they could connect with their sons through the painting.

VELEZ-MITCHELL: For two years she worked on nothing else but the Lima Project. On Memorial Day, the pictures were revealed at the Ohio statehouse, with family and friends looking on.


AL BLOOM, BROTHER OF FALLEN SOLDIER: It`s been three years, but honestly it hurts just as much today.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: It`s important to be here. She was born in April 2005 and he was killed in July 2005. We just tell her that he was a very good man.

VELEZ-MITCHELL: So now, the 23 fallen soldiers of Lima company stand together forever, just the way Anita Miller envisioned.

MILLER: When I stand here and when I am with the paintings, I am overwhelmed with a profound sense of gratitude. And I think in a lot of ways, that`s part of what the message is, that everyone that goes to serve their offering and laying down their life for the rest of us. The process has been painful, but beautiful at the same time.


VELEZ-MITCHELL: Joining me now, Carole and Chuck Hoffman. Their son, Sergeant Justin Hoffman, was part of Lima Company and was tragically killed in Iraq. Thank you both for being here. First of all, I know there is absolutely no way for any of us to really comprehend what you`ve gone through.

Carole, let`s start with you. Does this memorial help to ease your pain, and if so, how?

CAROLE HOFFMAN, MOTHER OF FALLEN SODLIER: The memorial has been an incredible source of healing for me, personally. I have been involved with Anita Miller for about the past year. And one of the things that I was privileged to do was to talk to all 23 families and gather information about each one of the young men that were killed. And a book was compiled telling about each person, not only as a Marine, but as a boy, as a young man.

So, I feet like I got to know all of the men that Justin died with, and the other men that were part of Lima Company, that were killed over there. So it`s been, as Anita said, a bittersweet. There`s been such a loss because now I feel that I know these young men myself, but there`s been an incredible healing in seeing people come to the exhibits and talking with the families, and sharing a little bit of who these incredible young men were.

VELEZ-MITCHELL: And, Chuck, because there were all these portraits done, it brought all these families together. Was it kind of like almost group therapy? When you are alone, things that are very, very hard. But when you share your experiences with somebody who has had the similar experience, sometimes that eases the pain. Has that happened in this situation because of all these portraits?

CHUCK HOFFMAN, FATHER OF FALLEN SOLDIER: I think it did. It was actually happening already before that. Our sons didn`t die alone, and it`s not for us to go through this process alone. So most of us, by the time that the memorial was dedicated had already known each other from other venues. And, yes the support of each other is essential.

VELEZ-MITCHELL: Carol, tell us about your son, Justin, and if you feel comfortable doing so, tell us how he died in Iraq.

C. HOFFMAN: Justin was my firstborn. He`s the oldest of three boys. He has two younger brothers. The second of which is now older than he was, Travis and Tyler. They were fun loving. Justin was my prankster. I guess they all are to a certain degree. Justin was very, very fun loving and he was bigger than the other two. He was 6`5".

He enjoyed -- he enjoyed picking on his younger brothers, but, boy, if anybody else tried to pick on them, he was there to defend them. They were very close. They had shared their dreams of being married and one would be the best man in one man`s wedding, and the next in the next and round robin, until all three of them were married and raising their children together.

VELEZ-MITCHELL: And what happened in Iraq?

C. HOFFMAN: In Iraq? Justin was the squad leader. He was killed with a roadside bomb with his entire squad, save one. His radio man was in another vehicle. And that was on August 3rd, 2005.

VELEZ-MITCHELL: That is such a moving story. And your courage in standing up and talking and participating is extraordinary because, again, as I said, there`s no way that we can comprehend and put ourselves in your shoes, and understand the pain and the agony that you have gone through.

Any words for Anita, the woman who had this special dream, and decided to devote so much of her life to making these extraordinary portraits, which are really beautiful art on top of everything else?

C. HOFFMAN: Anita Miller is one of the most giving and gracious women I`ve ever met. She is very spiritual. She is very connected with God, and has a deep passion and desire to follow what she believes God is asking her to do. And this whole memorial has been a fulfillment of that, which that in and of itself has been incredibly comforting to many, many of the 23 families.

VELEZ-MITCHELL: Carol, Chuck, thank you so much for joining us. Really, really, really appreciate it. We`re so happy we`re able to honor your heroic son.

I want to turn now to Paul Rieckhoff, he is the author of "Chasing Ghosts." The heart-wrenching book about his experiences as first lieutenant and infantry platoon leader for the U.S. Army National Guard. He spent a year in the most dangerous areas of Baghdad. When he got home, he created Iraq and Afghanistan veterans of America, a group that successfully pushed for a new GI bill.

So much has happened in the last couple of years. You were a big believer in finding jobs for veterans. Does the current economic state, which frankly is a disaster, make you worry about employment prospects for all the returning vets?

PAUL RIECKHOFF, IRAQ & AFGHANISTAN VETERANS OF AMERICA: Oh, why ma`am, it does. Absolutely. What I`ve been telling people consistently is that Americans are feeling this economic downturn in a very big way. But our veterans are hit even harder. Average Americans are dealing with gas prices, high food costs, and the mortgage crisis. Our military folks are dealing with the exact same things after a 12-month deployment, sometimes 15-month deployments, sometimes repeated deployments.

So, as the economy goes down, especially around the holidays, we want people to remember our veterans, our troops, and military families, especially.

VELEZ-MITCHELL: Yes, and to put this in perspective, President- Elect Barack Obama who campaigned on ending the war has said he wants to bring one or two brigades home per month from Iraq and have all combat troops out within 16 months. So, with 10s of thousands of veterans coming home if he`s able to implement that, what about health care for them? What about dealing with their injuries? Is there going to be a crisis there on the receiving end?

RIECKHOFF: Not if we get ahead of the curve. There have been 1.8 million men and women that have served in Iraq and Afghanistan since 9/11. They are going to be coming home with a variety of challenges in the areas of employment, mental health education. And. I think President-Elect Obama has a tremendous opportunity to galvanize the country behind our veterans. Now that the election is over, it doesn`t matter who you voted for, it doesn`t matter how you feel about the war, we can all, as Americans, be united behind supporting our veterans. Everyone can do something. Just like Anita in Ohio, everybody can do something to support our veterans.

VELEZ-MITCHELL: We all remember the controversy in 2007 surrounding conditions at Walter Reed Army Medical Center. Have things improved since that story broke?

RIECKHOFF: They have improved. There have been some major changes at Walter Reed and at medical facilities around the country and around the world. But we still need to do more. After folks leave the spotlight of Walter Reed, which is just a few blocks away from the White House, they go to local VA hospitals.

And at those local VA hospitals there`s a backlog of disability claims in the hundreds of thousands. The average wait time is about 183 days. So we`ve got to remove that backlog, we have got to cut through the red tape, and make sure that veterans of all generations, at our local veterans hospitals are getting the care they need, the flexible care that they need, and that our families aren`t forgotten as well.

VELEZ-MITCHELL: In 10 seconds, what can Americans do to make this easier for the returning vets?

RIECKHOFF: They can step up and support vets. I think that starts with making every day Veteran`s Day. We`ve created a dynamic web site called We`d ask everyone to go there, see our public service announcement, and pass it along to all of your friends. That`s one thing you can do to help a ton of returning veterans.

VELEZ-MITCHELL: Absolutely. They have given their utmost and that`s the least we can do in return. Thank you so much, Paul. Good luck with your work.

Ratchet was an Iraqi dog, discovered and rescued by a U.S. soldier from a burning pile of rubble. Now Ratchet has ratcheted up his lifestyle. He is enjoying life in the United States after tens of thousands of Americans petitioned for him to be allowed to come home with the soldier who rescued him, and desperately wanted to bring him back. An amazing story up next.


VELEZ-MITCHELL: Welcome back, this special edition of ISSUES. Sometimes we can find friendship in the most unlikely of places. Army Sergeant Gwen Beberg found her very best friend in a pile of burning trash in Iraq. She named him Ratchet and he was just a six-month-old puppy.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The site of a plane is reason for Pat Beaver to ask someone to pinch her.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Feel butterflies.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Pat has butterflies to meet a dog.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: This is finally sinking in.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: A dog found in a burning pile of trash in Iraq, now surrounded by cameras at Minneapolis-St. Paul International. Ratchet has come halfway around the world.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It`s hard to even talk, so.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: His journey has come full circle.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You can`t imagine how exciting this is. This dog is really important to my daughter, so it makes it important to us.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Specialist Gwen Beberg from Spring Lake Park is still serving in Iraq. Her troop mates found Ratchet, then a puppy, in a burning trash heap on Mother`s Day. Gwen adopted him and cared for him. But her attempt to get him home caused an international controversy. Operation Baghdad Pups finally retrieved him from Iraq on Sunday.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: My knees are shaking.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Today, Ratchet seems oblivious to the moment, just kind of nonchalant.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: He`s been through a lot. It`s just incredible. He`s so little. Well, he`s so young. He`s growing.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We wish Gwen was here.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Gwen e-mailed from Iraq on Sunday, writing, I`m very excited that Ratchet will be waiting for me. Words can`t describe it. That`s the only thing in my head. Great thankfulness. It took 65,000 people to sign a petition and one dedicated volunteer to bring Ratchet to Minnesota.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: It`s so worth it because these dogs are just priceless to these individuals and to their family.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Specialist Beberg may be home by Christmas, until then she is reassured Ratchet is home waiting.


VELEZ-MITCHELL: Such a touching story. You know, I think I may have signed that petition.

Joining me now is a woman who made Ratchet`s trip possible, Terri Crisp from the Society of Prevention of Cruelty to Animals International, and program manager for Operation Baghdad Pups.

Terry, bravo. Congratulations. Your organization has brought about 56 dogs and six cats from Iraq to the United States. And you know what? This is what`s amazing to me. You can`t tell an Iraqi dog from an American dog.


VELEZ-MITCHELL: They don`t bark differently. They don`t wag their tails differently. What`s the plight of dogs in Baghdad who have been struggling to survive in the midst of war?

CRISP: Well, even before the war, life was pretty rough for dogs and cats. The people, as a whole, just have very little regard for their life. That`s part of the reason why these men and women that are serving over there have taken them in because they just feel so sorry for them.

VELEZ-MITCHELL: Now apparently, there are rules that say that service members cannot rescue or adopt a dog. But, clearly, occasionally, they look the other way. Do you think they need to change those rules? Because the service members are under such stress in Iraq and we all know how having a dog in your life can really ease stress and bring you joy that you can`t find anywhere else.

CRISP: That`s so very true. And, I mean, they have to have guidelines. I mean it wouldn`t make sense if it was just opened up to everybody to bring in a dog or cat. It`s not even necessarily in the best interest of the animals to do that. But through Operation Baghdad Pups we`ve come up with a way where we can get these animals the veterinary care they need, get them safely brought to the United States, and then reunited with that soldier or Marine once they return home.

VELEZ-MITCHELL: It costs about $4,000 to get a dog out of Baghdad. And there are a lot of dogs that have bonded with U.S. soldiers and vice versa. But these soldiers simply cannot afford to have these dogs come back, even though they desperately want to in their hearts. There is something that people watching can do. And you can -- it`s very easy. Go to and then you click on Operation Baghdad Pups and you can make a donation. What is that money going to go to?

CRISP: That will go toward bringing more of these animals home. We`ve brought home a total of 75 this year. We`re expecting to have as many or more next year. We currently have about 50 animals on our waiting list. Just after the first of the year, we`ll begin resuming missions and we`re really going to need that financial support to make that happen.

VELEZ-MITCHELL: I think this would be a fantastic holiday gift. I think I`m going to do this as a holiday gift for some of my friends. Instead of giving them a gift I`m going to go to Click on Operation Baghdad Pups. Make a donation and send them a card and say, I helped get a dog out of Baghdad and it`s your holiday gift. What do you think?

CRISP: I think it`s a great gift. It`s not only helping the animals but it`s certainly helping our military. And what a great way to thank them for the sacrifices they`ve made for all of us who are back here at home.

VELEZ-MITCHELL: And Ratchet, very briefly. Ratchet is going to be reunited with Gwen, exactly when?

CRISP: Sometime in December. And I hope to be there for that. He`s an amazing dog, just like all the other ones we`ve brought home. So I hope I get to see that reunion.

VELEZ-MITCHELL: I understand that that dog is with Gwen`s family right now. She is still doing her duties and is going to be reunited when she goes back home.

Thank you so much, Terri. Great work. Keep it up and let`s hope some donations pour in to your incredible organization.

CRISP: Thanks very much.

A company starts a special program to help get injured veterans back in the workforce. I`m going to have this inspiring story, next.


VELEZ-MITCHELL: When you think of Walter Reed Army Medical Center, you don`t think of dogs wandering the halls. In just a bit, I will tell you how dogs are helping our wounded veterans.

But first, when Robbie Doughty signed up for the U.S. Army, at age 17, he had plans to make the service his career. But all those plans changed on July 8th, 2004, when Robbie`s HUMVEE was hit by a roadside bomb in Iraq. But instead of giving up, Robbie fought back and planned to fulfill his dreams of having a successful career with a little help that a lot of pizza dough and tomato sauce. Little Caesar`s made Robbie`s dream of running a pizza business, a reality.


ROBBIE DOUGHTY, WOUNDED WAR VET: The bomb basically too my right leg above the knee, and left leg below the knee. I didn`t lose my legs at that point, but the shrapnel damage to them would linger and cause them to be amputated during surgery.

VELEZ-MITCHELL (voice over): Staff Sergeant Robert Doughty had to deal with having both of his legs amputated. For many people, something like that would send them into a deep depression, but not Robby.

DOUGHTY: I did have a couple of bad days, but a lot of that stemmed from not knowing what I could do. You know, just as soon as I saw, you know, guys in the physical therapy room with their running legs on, and I was like, well, I can still do that stuff. You know, there was no bad feelings at all after that.

Robbie`s recovery was nothing short of incredible. The average time of rehab for his injury is 10 to 18 months. But Robbie`s recovery was just five months. It was that kind of spirit and determination that inspired the head of little Caesar`s Pizza to offer Robbie a franchise, free and clear.

DAVID SCRIVANO, PRESIDENT, LITTLE CAESARS: It originally started with our founder, Mike Ilitch. He read an article in the newspaper about a soldier, Robbie Doughty who was injured in the war in Iraq. After he read about him he saw in Robbie perseverance, some great attributes that would make him a leader.

DOUGHTY: It just kind of blew me away because it was just one of those opportunities of a lifetime, where they read a story about me, and they saw my positive attitude from it and, you know, basically wanted to reward me for it.

VELEZ-MITCHELL: So in 2007, Robbie opened the door to his Little Caesars store and his new life as an entrepreneur.

DOUGHTY: Are you supposed to be at 9:30?

VELEZ-MITCHELL: And just two months ago, he opened a second one.

DOUGHTY: I thought, hey, here`s my chance to be my own boss, work with food that I love. And, you know, just start a new life for myself.

VELEZ-MITCHELL: Based on Robbie`s success, Little Caesars has decided to start a special franchise program for veterans. Their hope, to inspire others the way Robbie has inspired them.

SCRIVANO: For all veterans, we offer a $10,000 benefit to come join Little Caesar`s as a franchisee. For injured veterans, which was really the true intent of the program, we offer a benefit of up to $68,000. This is really about the veterans and the people who serve.

DOUGHTY: And it just, you know it changed our lives right there. We went from, you know, being a soldier in the Army to owning our own business. And, I mean, we couldn`t be happier.


VELEZ-MITCHELL: What an attitude and what an example for all of us, no matter what we`re going through. That`s the example right there. Wow.

A former Army surgeon creates uniforms that could actually save soldiers` lives on the battlefield. I`ll look at his amazing invention and the safety of our troops in Iraq, next.


JANE VELEZ-MITCHELL, HEADLINE NEWS ANCHOR: I don`t care what your politics are. Most of us can agree that we must support our troops. We must give them the protection they need in battle. We must try to bring them home safe and sound to their loved ones.

As a former army surgeon, Dr. Keith Rose has seen many terrible things. Nothing could prepare him for the day he watched a soldier die while he was on a humanitarian mission overseas.


VELEZ-MITCHELL: Former army surgeon, Dr. Keith Rose will never forget watching a soldier die while on a humanitarian mission.

DR. KEITH ROSE, FORMER ARMY SURGEON: I came across an incident that happened and was involved and watched a man bleed to death. The man was in an accident to where we could not get to him. Could not get in the car and he just sat there and bled out. Had he had a tourniquet, and we were trying to get him one. In just a few minutes he had lost consciousness.

It`s very difficult when you watch someone bleed to death and know that that`s a preventable problem.

VELEZ-MITCHELL: Currently, the military issues each soldier one tourniquet and it`s up to them where to store it. Most put it in their backpacks or pockets. But once a soldier is hit, then they have to search for it which can take up precious time.

ROSE: I started thinking, how are they going to get to a tourniquet fast? I mean, if you`re going to put a tourniquet on a leg that`s wearing a holster, you have a pocket shoved full of magazines and other things, you need a clean seal around the leg. So I started thinking it just made sense to put it into the clothes.

VELEZ-MITCHELL: So Dr. Rose designed a uniform with tourniquets built into the shirts and pants. Soon after, he got in touch with Blackhawk. This is a company specializing in military gear. Blackhawk`s owner Mike Noell is a former Navy SEAL.

MIKE NOELL, OWNER BLACKHAWK: My initial thought was it`s another tourniquet. I didn`t understand the impact. And once I got it, he explained to me, you know, the details of how speed is the key if you have a major injury. That immediately hit home and we decided that this is something that we can really get behind.

VELEZ-MITCHELL: After 18 months of design and testing, the integrated tourniquet system is now ready.

ROSE: Flip, pull out the slack. Then use the winless (ph) mechanism over the pinch plate to keep you from having what we call a pinch pain. Then once you have a good, firm occlusion, you don`t have any active bleed, you secure it and replace the flap and you`re done.

VELEZ-MITCHELL: But here`s the rub. The tourniquet pants are now available for $90. And Blackhawk says the next step is convincing the military to buy these pants and issue them to every single one of our heroes.

NOELL: This type of process with the military could take years. We`re hoping that we can shorten that time frame; the sooner the better. We can save lives tomorrow morning at 8:00 if we can get this on the soldiers.


VELEZ-MITCHELL: Extraordinary how one person can make a difference to so many.

With me now, Roger Charles, a retired marine corps lieutenant colonel and editor of "Defense Watch" news magazine for the "Soldiers for Truth Foundation."

Roger, you have investigated and written about body armor supplied to our troops. Now, of course, the reputation of our American military has long been that we have the best equipped, best protected troops in the entire world. Has that been true for the U.S. Troops in the Iraq war?

ROGER CHARLES, EDITOR, "DEFENSE WATCH": Unfortunately, it`s not true.

VELEZ-MITCHELL: And if so, why? We just saw this tourniquet system that these two men who have developed this said it could take years to get through the U.S. military. That`s a very simple idea that anybody can get just looking at. It`s not high tech.

Is there too much bureaucracy that prevents an innovation like that from being snapped up and implemented immediately?

CHARLES: You nailed it right on the head. The bureaucracy will take the approach that it wasn`t invented here. It`s actually seen as an embarrassment to their reputation and a threat to their own programs that someone outside has come up with something.

We`ve got this huge research and development apparatus in the military that should have come up with this years ago. And here`s Dr. Rose coming up with something so simple that it`s just brilliant. And, yet, I fear that it will take years before his invention gets out into the field.

VELEZ-MITCHELL: Now two things that resulted from your investigation. You claim that the grunts, the average soldiers, get inferior body armor to what the special ops units get. And you also say that the examination of body armor on dead U.S. troops has recently been labeled classified.

Do you think somebody is trying to cover up a problem?

CHARLES: Oh, absolutely. There`s no question. This information was not classified at all three years ago. We have documents that are unclassified dealing with this very subject. And now, it`s classified top secret.

So somebody is wanting to hide something, hide it from the American people, and I think hide it from the U.S. Congress and so far as they seem to be succeeding.

VELEZ-MITCHELL: Well, let`s hope they don`t succeed for long. Stay on top of this story. Break it to Congress and let`s, as a nation, take a look at it because our troops deserve the very best.

Thank you so much, Roger. Good luck with your work.

Ever had a therapist lick your face? For some of our injured veterans at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, that`s not some bizarre experience. Instead, it`s a regular occurrence. And these medics on a mission also have tails. That`s a hit.

Take a look.


VELEZ-MITCHELL: You don`t really expect to see dogs walking in the hall of Walter Reed Army Medical Center. But these dogs are in the hallways and they are on a mission. Their mission: to help injured soldiers going through rehab forget the pain.

MOLLY MORGAN, THERAPY DOG OWNER: We go around to many of the wards and the clinics and the rooms and visit soldiers. And our mission is to bring a little happiness, a little comfort, a little feeling of home.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: This is a beautiful dog.

MORGAN: At first we sort of startle people. But then when they see us, then you suddenly see their demeanors just becoming more and more calm and they settle in and they want to see us and talk to the dog. Then they just seem to take a little break from what they are going through. And what they`ve been through in the last couple of months.

VELEZ-MITCHELL: The dogs and their handlers are trained and certified by PAL, "People Animals Love." This group was started in 1981 by a veterinarian who knew firsthand how animals could truly lift spirits.

DIANA HENSLY, RETIRED SOLDIER: It`s a welcome relief because they are friendly and pretty. Yeah, it really boosts your morale when you see the people bring in the dogs.

PFC JOHN HOLT, SERVED IN IRAQ: While I was in the hospital bed, they brought over all the dogs and they were just really nice to see and made me happy; they just made me think about home. They helped me out because it`s just -- I don`t know -- there`s something about animals. Just real happy dogs make you feel a much better.

STAFF SERGEANT RENEE, SERVED IN IRAQ: It`s very therapeutic for me because you are in a lot of pain, and, you know it kind of takes your mind off of what you are actually feeling and what you are going through for the moment that they are here.

VELEZ-MITCHELL: So after a long day of spreading their special bond of cheer, these dogs know that they`ve done their job to help a soldier relax and forget if only for a few minutes.


VELEZ-MITCHELL: With me now to remind us how animals can truly lift spirits is Wells Jones, chief executive officer of America`s Vet Dogs. And with him is Maverick, a beautiful golden lab who is a certified therapy dog.

Wells, your group provides guide, service and therapy dogs to disabled veterans throughout the United States. But Maverick, who`s kind of frisky there, the therapy dog is about to leap for a combat zone in Iraq. And, yeah, you got -- that`s okay. I`ve had my dogs on TV many, many times. It`s a work in progress and it`s television.

Tell us the story of Maverick and what his mission in Iraq is going to be.

WELLS JONES, CEO AMERICA`S VET DOG: Well, I will indeed. It`s good to see you, Jane.

Maverick, although uncomfortable up on a table, but Maverick is --


JONES: I think we all would be.

Maverick is trained to go to the Middle East in the winter and he will join a combat stress team there and be part of therapy for the troops in Iraq or Afghanistan.

We already have two dogs over there, Bo and Budge. They are sergeants first class in the army, and they perform an important role in helping therapists work with our soldiers in the combat zone.

VELEZ-MITCHELL: Well, you know, the thing is that dogs hit you on a different level than human beings do. Usually you have mixed feelings about any human being. With dogs, it`s just an unconditional love that goes back and forth.

When they come to visit a soldier, they don`t care whether that soldier is missing legs or is depressed. Their tail is wagging. So that unconditional love is truly healing.

JONES: Absolutely and they are also wonderful ice breakers because they represent normalcy and home and warmth. And so they`ll open a conversation with a therapist that may not be open otherwise.

VELEZ-MITCHELL: What I thought was fascinating was the story I read of this dog Larry. In 2007, he was assigned to a sergeant who was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, having nightmares. His hands were shaking. He was a mess.

After getting Larry, his life totally changed and this dog can even alert the sergeant to when an attack is coming on. Some kind of bond he has with the soldier.

JONES: Absolutely. Larry was trained by our organization to provide balance, to help the sergeant brace himself and get up, if he falls. He was trained to fetch items, and he was trained to alert, in our parlance, to a seizure to let someone know that the sergeant had had a seizure and get help.

But what he`s learned to do since, by his bond with the sergeant, is to anticipate a seizure as much as three hours before.

VELEZ-MITCHELL: Wow. Well, listen. I know there are two therapy dogs that are already in Iraq working with soldiers, helping them, not just when they are injured but when they are depressed. And I want to make sure Maverick has a very safe journey to Iraq and back.

We`ll talk to you when he comes back. Thank you, Wells, so much. Great work.

You know, it started with a care package for her son in Iraq; now, one mom has more than 180,000 volunteers sending packages and letters to thousands of soldiers overseas. I`ll have the extraordinary story when we come right back.


VELEZ MITCHELL: This is the time of the year most people look forward to getting together with friends and family and having a great time. But for the 140,000 troops fighting the war in Iraq, being home for the holidays is a dream. It`s not really an option.

That`s where "Soldiers` Angels" steps in.


VELEZ-MITCHELL: Patti Patton Bader just calls herself an ordinary mom who wanted to do something for her son stationed in Iraq.

PATTI PATTON BADER, "SOLDIERS` ANGEL": When they get on that plane and leave American soil, your breath just stops. You can`t breathe. Nothing is the same. And you feel powerless until you can do support things, until you can do things to help them.

VELEZ-MITCHELL: Immediately, Patti started sending her son Brandon care packages. But she never imagined those small packages would help so many soldiers.

BADER: Brandon called and he goes, "Yeah, mom, we`re getting the packages. It`s wonderful." He goes, "You and a couple of the wives are the only people sending things. So I`m sharing. We`re completely out."

I said, "Ok, don`t worry, son. More packages are on the way." I hung up the phone and turned to my husband and said, "We`re going to need more people involved in this."

VELEZ-MITCHELL: What started four and a half years ago with Patti and her friends sending letters and packages to soldiers has grown into the non-profit organization called "Soldiers` Angels."

BADER: We started out with about 800 members. We now have 180,000 volunteers. And there`s a lot you can do at "Soldiers` Angels." If you don`t have a lot of money you have some time, help us write letters. Our letter writing team is putting out over 20,000 letters a month.

If you don`t have a lot of time, you have some money, give us a donation. If you are in between, like I am, help me adopt a soldier. Send a card or a letter a week, a couple of care packages a month to one soldier one on one.

You know, they equate having their name called at mail call to Christmas morning. So all year long you can provide a Christmas for them which is fantastic.


VELEZ-MITCHELL: Joining me now to talk about what we can do here to help soldiers serving in Iraq and Afghanistan this holiday season is Patti Patton Bader, founder of "Soldiers` Angels" as well as Deborah Crane, founder of "Treats for Troops."

Deborah, get us started. What is the biggest request that you get from soldiers during the holiday season?

DEBORAH CRANE, "TREATS FOR TROOPS": Pretty much all year long, one of the biggest requests that we get are for cookies and/or salty snacks. Phone cards are also very high on the list as are practical items and personal care things. Hand and face wipes, maybe a new pair of socks. Anything that makes them smile from home.

VELEZ-MITCHELL: So I want to understand how this works. And, first of all, ladies, hats off to you for this amazing work that you are doing; nothing could be more important than what you are doing.

Patti Patton Bader, tell us. You go to and what do you do? Who actually picks out the items that are going to be sent to these troops? How can people get involved?

BADER: Well, Jane, thanks for having us on the show.

And we -- there`s a lot you can do at "Soldiers` Angels." We try and bring programs out that people would like and can appreciate. You can adopt a soldier. Go to the store, buy your own snacks or go to our Angel Store or go to Treats for Troops.

Mostly they want snacks, hygiene items, phone cards, thermal coffee mugs. One of the biggest things requested right now is a warm, soft blanket. That`s why we initiated the "Blankets of Belief." We`re trying to get out 180,000 blankets to our deployed troops so on the holidays they`ll open a present that says we believe in you. It`s a blanket donated by the American public or worldwide, if you`d like.

I think it would be very encouraging to them. And that`s the most important thing. Let`s let them know we haven`t forgotten them. We appreciate what they are doing. We know the job is hard, but they can do it and we believe in them and bring them home healthy. And that`s what "Soldiers` Angels" is about.

VELEZ-MITCHELL: It`s great, great, great work. I love it. is the other Website you can go to if you want to help out the troops this holiday season.

Deborah Crane, how does it work, though? Can people actually donate items or is it better for them just to give cash or check or credit card and let you pick out the items?

CRANE: Well, you actually get to pick out the items that you want to send through our gift shop. And you pay for that like -- just like you would when you are shopping on any online gift shop.

We`re a little different approach than "Soldiers` Angels," which the work they do is great. At we provide the convenient service for friends and family and for anyone who wants to send a package on a regular basis but they don`t always have time.

And this time of year, one of our -- one of the things that we have that is very sought after is our superstocking we`ve got this wonderful red stocking filled with all sorts of goodies, including an electronic hand- held game and the all-popular phone cards.

VELEZ-MITCHELL: That`s great.

I just want to quickly ask Patti. The word Patton is in your name and that`s no coincidence. You are actually related to General George Patton. Tell us about that.

BADER: Yeah, I`m the great niece of General George Patton, daughter of a retired lieutenant colonel, mom of two sons who have been to Iraq. And, so I kind of know -- I kind of felt I had to do something with our young sons and daughters being so brave, so that`s why I started "Soldiers` Angels."

And with us too, you can go to our angels store and pick out a holiday pack that will include the phone card, the thermal mug and warm blanket and that kind of stuff.

VELEZ-MITCHELL: We have to wrap it up. But I hope your sons are back safe and sound.

BADER: Oh, yes.

VELEZ-MITCHELL: Great to hear that. Keep up your amazing work, ladies. And folks out there get involved. Go to those Websites. Help out the soldiers.

You can`t have a birthday without cake, right? Maybe a couple of gifts that you`re going to re-gift?

I`ll have a story of a man who is making sure our soldiers overseas get to celebrate their birthdays the right way. Next.


VELEZ-MITCHELL: We all know it`s not a birthday without cake. But for all of our troops serving in Iraq, having a simple birthday candle to blow out may be too much to ask.

That`s where Josh Kaye steps in.


JOSH KAYE, BAKE ME A WISH: I grew up in a financially-challenged background. I never had a cake growing up. I remember the feeling of how I felt on my birthday and not having a cake. And I pictured myself in that soldier`s -- being with that soldier, feeling how lonely it is. You know, they`re in harm`s way. It`s their birthday.

VELEZ-MITCHELL: Josh Kaye is the founder of; and online company that sells and delivers cakes anywhere in the country.

Two years ago, Josh received a phone call that changed his company forever.

KAYE: I received a call from a mom, and the mom said, could you send -- my son is having a birthday, he`s in Iraq. Could you send him a cake?

And the first thing I said, yeah, right. Send Iraq a cake? I just don`t think so. But then I stopped and I thought to myself, what an amazing possibility that could be.

VELEZ-MITCHELL: So Kaye created "Operation Birthday Cake," through a partnership with "Soldiers` Angels" and the Armed Forces Foundation, he sends 10,000 cakes a year to soldiers overseas. All for free.

KAYE: I received this -- a letter from a soldier, and she was stationed in Afghanistan, and she received a cake on her birthday in the mail in Afghanistan. And she said you just don`t know what it did to me. It picked me up. It gave me a lift.

VELEZ-MITCHELL: Kaye also gives free cakes to kids through the Make-A- Wish Foundation, in addition to five percent of his company profits.

KAYE: When a child receives a cake, their illness disappears for that moment. They feel special, they feel wonderful. It`s all about them getting that cake and taking them from the moment of being a child with a life-threatening illness to being just a child.

VELEZ-MITCHELL: Kaye`s next mission, secure a large corporate sponsor so he can supply a sweet taste of home to each and every soldier on their birthday.

KAYE: I`m excited because I`m making a difference in this world. And that`s my goal in life, is by me being here, making this world a better place to live.


VELEZ-MITCHELL: There`s a lot of good people out there, doing wonderful things.

There are two kinds of conversations; one happens on TV, the other kind happens everywhere else. I`m Jane Velez-Mitchell. I`m just trying to keep it real.

Thanks for being a part of this. Please keep coming back for some more real "ISSUES."