HORSEHEADS, NY (WENY) -- The Horseheads Elks Lodge 2297 had a full house Saturday, for its annual seafood boil fundraiser. Each year, the event raises money to help support veterans at the Bath VA. This year, there was an additional worthy cause.

"We have so many veterans here at our lodge," said event coordinator and bar manager, Hannah Aspenwall. "It's important to us, and most of us have either friends or family that served and we just really want to give back. Anything with veterans the Elks wants to be a part of it, we want to give back."

Now in its sixth year, the seafood boil raises money for the Bath VA. This year, the cause will also benefit America's Vet Dogs -- a non-profit that provides service dogs to active-duty service members, veterans, and first responders with disabilities. 

It's a cause close to the heart of Navy Vietnam veteran Mike Wesneski, who received his service dog John in late 2022. He said friends had urged him for some time to get a dog, and he was researching service dog programs when he discovered America's Vet Dogs, and decided to apply. Wesneski was on a wait list for a length of time before learning he would be paired with John. 

"He changed my life. He saved it. I was in a really bad place. Being at home, pretty much every day of the week, except Sunday my daughter and her husband will come over for a couple hours, but the rest of the time was just stark loneliness," Wesneski said.

Wesneski said he suffers from PTSD, and is often plagued with nightmares. John is specially trained to recognize when Mike is having one, and wakes him up. John's presence also makes it easier to for Mike to get out of the house, whether it's to run errands or just enjoy time outside. 

"He goes with me everywhere. Just a constant companion," he said, saying when he goes some places, John even gets greeted first. 

Wesneski said his life has been so profoundly impacted by having John, he wanted to raise money so America's Vet Dogs can continue to help others like him. The process to receive a service dog through America's Vet Dogs is lengthy and detailed, so the organization can pair the right dog with the right person, to best suit their abilities and needs. The placement comes at no cost to the recipient. 

"It’s an experience that I hope today will help other veterans. To learn of this program, it cost over $50,000 to breed, raise, train and place these dogs, and it’s totally free [for the veteran]. I mean there’s no cost at all," Wesneski explained. 

Once paired, the recipient will travel to America's Vet Dogs campus in Smithtown, New York, to meet their dog, and go through a two-week training program. There, the person and their dog bond and learn how to work together. 

America's Vet Dogs is accredited by the International Guide Dog Foundation, and Assistance Dogs International. In 2024, it placed its 1,000th service dog since the program began in 2003.

Saturday's sold-out seafood boil is expected to bring in thousands of dollars, thanks to advance ticket sales, door entry, raffle baskets, and community donations. To date, the Horseheads Elks Lodge has raised over $50,000 for the Bath VA. 

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