For the servicemen and women who lay their lives on the line for their country, was can continue to take a heavy physical and emotional toll. It’s estimated that as many as 20 percent of military veterans suffer from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. At the same time, millions of shelter animals await their forever home. The Kansas City chapter of one national organization, Pets for Vets, seeks to build a bridge, matching veterans with local shelter animals.

Avery Shahandeh of Lee’s Summit founded the Kansas City chapter of Pets for Vets in April 2015. Her husband is a veteran, and she has a personal passion for helping shelter animals.

“We knew there was a growing concern for returning veterans in our country, and we wanted to let them know they weren’t forgotten,” Avery says. “We also knew that dogs in shelters in the area needed attention and could help provide a healing connection to these veterans.”

Pets for Vets-Kansas City serves veterans in Cass, Clay, Jackson and Lafayette counties in Missouri and Johnson and Wyandotte counties in Kansas. The organization partners with local shelters including KC Pet Project, Wayside Waifs and Great Plains SPCA.

First, veterans must complete an online application. Then, local volunteers reach out to veteran applicants to get to know them better, beginning the unique “Super Bond” process. This process involves interviewing the veteran and then the pet to find an animal match whose personality and temperament best suits the needs of the veteran.

Once the carefully informed selection has been made, the pet spends time with a professional trainer who uses positive reinforcement to teach good manners, basic obedience and other valuable skills. Training may also include becoming comfortable with specific physical needs as well as recognizing panic or anxiety disorder behaviors. When companion animals meet their new owners, the connection is strong thanks to the Super Bond process. The pet is able to fit seamlessly into the life of its new owner.

Staff Sergeant Gwen LaViolet retired from the Air Force in February 2004. She was apprehensive to get a new pet upon her return from Iraq because the loss of her first dog was difficult, and she suffered from PTSD and depression. But when she was matched with her dog, Auggie, through Pets for Vets-Kansas City, she says the bond was immediate.

“He loves to run and play, which has gotten me out of the house more in the last month than in the past two or three years,” Gwen says. “Auggie gives meaning to my life again.”

Avery says she’s witnessed firsthand the impact that a companion animal can have in the life of a veteran as well.

“It’s really amazing to watch them interact and feel like they’re in a safe place because of their pet,” she says.

For more information, visit PetsForVets.com/Kansas-City.