Three Vermont veterans and their loyal companions added a new distinction to their résumés earlier this month: newly-minted grads.

The June 16 graduation ceremony at Camp Johnson in Colchester marked the final hoorah for Michelle LeBlanc’s third class to move on from Paws and Boots, a Williston-based program that connects veterans and first responders with rescue dogs.

Completely pro bono, programs like LeBlanc’s are welcome news for veterans since post-traumatic stress disorder service dogs aren’t covered by insurance. Private services can charge up to $60,000 for the dog and its training, according to Paws and Stripes, a nonprofit organization.

Graduations are a bittersweet day for LeBlanc, who spends up to eight months training with her students. The payoff is worth it, however.

“They trust their life with me, and that’s something I certainly don’t take for granted. It’s so humbling,” LeBlanc said.

LeBlanc said she has former students who used to stay home or be attached to their spouses. Now, they’re out and about, like one student who walked down Church Street during training – a seemingly benign act that became difficult for the veteran after he experienced several bomb explosions in open market settings during his deployment.

The program also gives students something to focus on and encourages them to engage with fellow veterans, said David Hurne, one of the three to graduate from the program earlier this month.

Hurne, 47, of Underhill, served in the Marines for six years, including an eight-month stint in Iraq. He met LeBlanc through a Veterans Affairs counselor and expressed interest in going through the program with his dog, Gemma, a connection that coincided with his attempt to get sober after struggling for years with alcoholism.

The program quickly became a powerful force in his pursuit of a sober life and deepened his relationship with his “best friend,” Gemma, who helped return his “sense of awe with life.”

“Finding happiness, finding joy in the little things,” he explained, “which is a big part of my sobriety.”

Hurne admits he’s not a huge people person and explained his PTSD manifests in social anxiety, often forcing him to keep to himself. But Gemma provides a buffer, helping him meet and talk with new people. He said that’s especially important for veterans.

“Isolation is the biggest killer,” he said. “That’s when substance abuse and suicide happen: when we isolate and feel disconnected. Programs like this reconnect us with other people that uniquely understand our situation where most people can’t.”

LeBlanc, a Vermont State Police corporal, hopes her program spreads a similar message: that it’s OK to seek help. “We’re human, we’re not robots,” she said. “What we see affects us, and it affects everybody differently.”

That’s why she also caters to first responders, she said, one of the only in the country to do so.

LeBlanc believes the stigma surrounding mental health among veterans and first responders is slowly improving: When she was a kid, no one had even heard of the phrase “service dog.” Now, people understand they’re tools that help someone live their daily life.

“The world is finally changing and realizing that you can be fixed. You’re not broken. We don’t just throw you away,” she said. “But that stigma is there.”

LeBlanc founded the program in 2015 with the help of the Essex Rotary Club, which donated money toward vet bills, training equipment and food for the program’s first three dogs. The Rotary has since moved on, but LeBlanc is looking to continue her program for years to come, starting a donations page to help offset the costs. One day, she hopes to even open a permanent location.

For now, however, she’s focused on making an impact in any way she can.

“One life at a time,” she said.

Photos by Kyle St. Peter for the Colchester Sun.