Service dog rides in air ambulance with ex-soldier

In this Nov, 2, 2016 photo, U.S. Army veteran Louis Belluomini and his service dog, Star, sit in an ambulance at ProMedica Flower Hospital in Sylvania, Ohio. Belluomini, a ProMedica Air and Mobile medic, served with the U.S. Army, first with a combat military police unit in Iraq, then a few years later in Afghanistan. He was diagnosed with PTSD in 2009. (Amy E. Voigt/The Blade via AP)

TOLEDO — Louis Belluomini exited from a parked ambulance at ProMedica Flower Hospital in Sylvania as he held a leash and said “side.” Less than a second later, Star, his service dog, went into a sitting position next to him and lay down.

“I don’t like the idea of being on medication for the rest of my life,” said Belluomini, who is a ProMedica Air and Mobile medic. “This was an opportunity to get off of those medications.”

The 32-year-old was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder — PTSD — in 2009 after his time stationed with U.S. Army in Iraq and Afghanistan. He told the Toledo Blade that it wasn’t until he returned home when his friends and family noticed he was having issues, including not wanting to be at home alone and other “weird little things.”

It was when he and his wife moved in together that he decided to take action.

“We realized, ‘Hey, this is something that is starting to be more of a problem,'” Belluomini said. “That’s when we decided to deal with it.”

In September, he met Star, a 1-year-old Lab and golden retriever mix, while involved in a three-week program at K9s For Warriors in Florida. The organization focuses on providing service canines to “warriors” with PTSD, traumatic brain injury, or military sexual trauma as a result of military service post-9/11. The program also provides service to those in active duty.

Brianna Ehrhart, education coordinator for K9s For Warriors, said the dogs are trained before the warriors meet them, and the program includes housing, more training and meals. Eight warriors on average are enrolled in the three-week program each month, which is all funded by sponsors and donors. Ninety percent of the canines used for the program are rescued and shelter dogs.

Ehrhart said Belluomini had a “bubbly, outgoing” personality from the start, and he stays in touch with the organization through Facebook.

“By the time he left, he was incredibly happy to leave with Star and to have her accompany him in the world,” Ehrhart said.

Since bringing Star back to his home in Findlay at the end of September, Belluomini immediately noticed the service dog’s work.

During the second day at home, Star woke Belluomini up from nightmares several times throughout the night. Other times Star has prevented him from sleepwalking, as well as laying in front of him during times he feels uncomfortable next to people. Star keeps a close watch behind Belluomini where he can’t see and will bark or alert him of anything suspicious.

Star goes to work with Belluomini and even rides with him in the ambulance.

She has her own area in the ambulance that he calls the “doghouse,” where she will sit with him and his partner. If patients feel uncomfortable with a dog around, Star will sit quietly in the front away from everyone. Although being on a helicopter is part of the job, Star will stay back at the hospital to wait for his return.

Dave Caris, director of operations for ProMedica Transportation Network Air and Mobile, has worked with Belluomini for about a year. He said Star is the second service dog, as the other belongs to a nurse at Toledo Hospital in the intensive care unit.

Caris said he hopes not only for Star to help Belluomini’s treatment, but to also raise PTSD awareness to get more people talking about it as the two are seen driving in an ambulance throughout the local area.

He said having Star as an added member of the team will benefit patients, specifically for the children and the elderly.

“The dog can be very comforting for kids and sometimes puts a smile on elderly patients’ face,” Caris said.

While Star is still a puppy, Belluomini said she needs to have fun and exercise, but she still has to provide a service.

“When she is at work with me she is my tool, and when we’re at home she’s a family dog,” Belluomini said. “She knows her job is first and foremost.”