Disabled veterans find work as animal caregivers

Vets & Pets

EL PASO, Texas - Playing with, cleaning and caring for pets is a total turn-around from Leigh Ann Karch's last assignment.

"I'm in the Texas National Guard," said Karch as Pomeranian darted past her legs. "I got back from Iraq three years ago." When Karch returned, she struggled with post-traumatic stress disorder and finding a job,"Transitioning back into civilian life was hard, so when I started looking for a job it was increasingly difficult."

The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports those who have served in the military since Sept. 11, 2001, like Karch, have an unemployment rate around two percentage points higher than the national average.

"Because of our disabled vet (workforce) population in El Paso is so depressed it's hard for them to find jobs," said Sam Stipe. Sam and her husband, Gary, are disabled vets with more than fifty years of combined service between the two of them.

The military was never far from their minds when they decided to open up a kennel and grooming business, "because we're soldiers first," said Sam. "We had to do something for disabled vets."

The Stipes created Pet Barracks, a 5,500 square foot dome structure that sits on the 11-thousand block of Dyer Street in Northeast El Paso. Inside the "barracks", fur gets fluffed by a barber, not a groomer, and instead of a kitchen, there is a mess hall. "We had to have it as familiar as we could to transitioning soldiers," said Sam.

A few chihuahuas, a rambunctious Pomeranian and a gentle pitbull mix were among the first to be enlisted at a grand opening on Monday, but the facility can hold up to 75 dogs and about 10 cats. The Stipes have already hired five disabled vets, including Karch.

"Being able to work with animals is a lot like working with battle buddies," said Karch. "A lot of it is non-verbal...You feel that other person and you understand exactly what they're going to do and how they're going to react to things. And that's what animals are like."

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