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Program Started In Tulsa Is a Blessing For Returning Veterans, Shelter Animals

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GI Wishes matched Matt Ziblay with 2-year-old Stormy, a lab-boxer mix that needed a home. GI Wishes matched Matt Ziblay with 2-year-old Stormy, a lab-boxer mix that needed a home.
Ziblay served on a 10-month deployment to Iraq, stretching from 2009 into 2010. Ziblay served on a 10-month deployment to Iraq, stretching from 2009 into 2010.
GI Wishes, which started in Tulsa, matches rescue animals with veterans and their families for companionship. GI Wishes, which started in Tulsa, matches rescue animals with veterans and their families for companionship.
Rob Wheeler, of GI Wishes. Rob Wheeler, of GI Wishes.
TULSA, Oklahoma -

There are estimates that 30 percent of returning veterans come home with signs of depression or post-traumatic stress disorder. Some have nightmares, are detached from others, or just have a hard time readjusting to civilian life.

A program that started in Tulsa hopes to help those veterans, and animals that need homes, too.

When his nation needed him, Matt Ziblay answered, along with thousands of Oklahoma soldiers. Ziblay served on a 10-month deployment to Iraq, stretching from 2009 into 2010.

His time in Baghdad, constantly fearing danger, took a toll on him.

"[It was an] everyday deal--even in your sleep you'd have nightmares, too," Ziblay said.

Ziblay returned to Oklahoma with a lot of anxiety and depression.

"It doesn't just end when you get out of the combat zone, it continues when you get home, too," he said.

A study by the American Journal of Psychiatry shows about 12 percent of combat troops returning from deployment to Afghanistan and Iraq face post-traumatic stress disorder.

More than 7 percent face depression, which Ziblay struggled to deal with.

"Couldn't sleep. Couldn't really focus on anything," he said.

That's where a nonprofit group called GI Wishes stepped in to make a difference.

"Studies have shown that animals can be very soothing, psychologically, in that respect," said Rob Wheeler, of GI Wishes.

The group, which started in Tulsa, matches rescue animals with veterans and their families for companionship.

"Sort of a middleman between rescue organizations and veterans," Wheeler said.

GI Wishes matched Matt Ziblay with 2-year-old Stormy, a lab-boxer mix that needed a home.

"You know the Bible says, 'Ask and you shall receive,' and I was asking for a pet and a friend, and this is what happened," Ziblay said.

He said, whenever he's in a bad or sad mood, Stormy can sense it, but always seems to lift his spirits.

"She helps me, a lot, get through anxiety and depression, and I just had to find something to help me get through that," Ziblay said.

"The love of an animal, and the love a veteran has for an animal, it's an amazing thing to see happen when it really works," Wheeler said.

The program works with veterans paying the first $50 of expenses that pet adoption organizations charge, and GI Wishes paying the rest, plus covering the costs of veterinary care for a year.

"What we can do, we can go obtain an animal for a veteran, and then free up a space for that rescue group to go get another animal," Wheeler said.

So, it works out great for the animal rescue groups and the veterans who need companionship.

"Stormy has made a huge difference in my life," Ziblay said.

Before, he said he hated coming home to an empty apartment. That's changed with Stormy.

"I look forward to coming home and seeing her there. She's always excited to see me, too," Ziblay said.

The program has placed about a dozen animals, so far, and even more have been temporarily placed with a network of foster homes for animals, which helps military men and women when they're deployed, and don't have anyone else to keep their pets.

Now, studying occupational therapy, Matt Ziblay is doing much better readjusting to civilian life. He credits GI Wishes and Stormy.

"She's definitely a blessing," Ziblay said.

The foster care network through GI Wishes can also help older veterans who may need someone to watch their pet while they are in the hospital.

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