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Dogs help war vets find 'new normal'

Top 10 CNN Hero: Mary Cortani

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    Top 10 CNN Hero: Mary Cortani

Top 10 CNN Hero: Mary Cortani 01:43

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More than 2 million U.S. troops have been deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan since October 2001, and it has been estimated that one in five of those veterans are likely to be afflicted by post-traumatic stress disorder or major depression.

Mary Cortani is working to help some of them enjoy life again.

Through her nonprofit, Operation Freedom Paws, Cortani helps veterans train their own service dogs in northern California. She often helps match veterans with dogs from shelters or rescue groups.

CNN asked Cortani for her thoughts on being chosen as one of the top 10 CNN Heroes of 2012.

CNN: What do you hope this recognition will mean to Operation Freedom Paws?

Mary Cortani: Since June, I have received emails and phone calls from all over the country asking for information on how to get service dogs for veterans. Some requests are coming from the veterans themselves, but most are coming from family members watching their loved ones struggle with PTSD, traumatic brain injuries and mobility issues.

It's heartbreaking to learn about what these veterans and their families are going through, and even harder to hear their stories and know Operation Freedom Paws could help more of them if we had additional resources.

I am hoping that with the recognition, we will (be able) to build the OFP Education Center and hire our mentor trainers, who are veterans that have completed or are completing the program. (We want to) put them and other veterans to work training others and expand into a national organization to help even more.

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But even more important, I hope it helps bring awareness to the issues that our veterans -- male and female -- face coming home injured. I hope it helps (our group) enlighten the public and government that service dogs can be a viable tool for assisting veterans, especially those suffering from PTSD and sexual trauma.

The canine-human bond is an amazing gift that can make a difference for an individual to begin to feel and create their own new normal. How can we not support it? If we change just one life and make it better, why won't we?

CNN: What was the reaction when you found out you were a top 10 CNN Hero?

Cortani: This is an amazing journey. My life was already blessed, and this is icing on the cake. What an amazing group of people to be included with. I still cannot believe it is happening, and (I) have to pinch myself to know I'm not dreaming.

This is not about me; it is about the veterans and the sacrifices that they and their families have made. This honor is for them.

The veterans and clients that we work with every day are my heroes. The courage that they show every moment, just getting through the simple tasks or things that we take for granted, is my inspiration to keep moving forward and help even more. They do not even realize the strength they give me every day.

Who should be the CNN Hero of the Year? Cast your vote now!

CNN: How will you use the $50,000 award you receive for being selected as a top 10 CNN Hero?

Cortani: I intend to continue using whatever funding and positive publicity comes our way to increase public awareness about veterans' invisible wounds and expand our service dog training programs.

There are animals in shelters that will make outstanding service dogs, and there are veterans in desperate need of them. We just need to make the connections to start them on their path together toward a new normal. We will work toward building our new facility and helping more veterans and hiring veterans.

CNN: What do you want people to know most about your work?

Cortani: Conventional treatment is only part of the solution; we need to think outside the box and look at other treatments and tools that can help improve the quality of life for our veterans and others with disabilities.

A dog that is highly trained to do specific tasks for an individual is one of those tools. The veterans still need the medical (treatment), but medical cannot address the spirit-soul. Therapy isn't there 24/7 -- a dog is. Combine what works, and maybe we can improve their quality of life.

Service dogs work. Just ask any veteran who used to isolate (himself), get in fights, lost his family, had no hope for the future, thought about suicide -- they will tell you. We can make a difference, and we owe them a chance to enjoy life again. ...

Being a veteran myself, I understand loss of purpose, the mission. Training their own service dog gives them that and more. It gives them a shot at a quality life again.

Read the full story on CNN Hero Mary Cortani:
Man's best friend helping war veterans heal

More Q&As from top 10 Heroes:
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A voice for America's caregiving kids
After losing daughter, dad vows to change culture
Seeking justice for Haiti's rape victims
$50K to help 'Kliptown kids' rise up
Changing reality for impoverished teen moms