'One A Day," read the Time magazine cover, a bugler pictured against a gray sky. "Every day, one US soldier commits suicide," it read.
Trisha Blanchet of Chelmsford, daughter of a Vietnam veteran, was stunned. "The 'one a day' statistic was shocking enough. Then I learned that if you expand those numbers to include all veterans, the suicide rate actually jumps to one every 80 minutes, around the clock," said Blanchet, 41, a former newspaper reporter. "It's so sad, and it's really unacceptable."
Posttraumatic stress disorder and brain trauma are key culprits. She decided to find out just what was being done to provide better coping strategies. An online search turned up three programs pairing veterans with service dogs, including one in Maine. The proud owner of Sadie — a big, black mutt rescued from a shelter — Blanchet had an idea: Why not train shelter dogs to be service dogs for troubled veterans?
"Then you could help the homeless dogs and the veterans," said Blanchet, author of four guidebooks for traveling with dogs. "We need to come up with nontraditional solutions to the problem. What we're doing is not enough. I think our veterans deserve better."
Operation Canine was launched last August, and Blanchet has been on a mission ever since.
She entered a contest for entrepreneurs sponsored by Merrimack Valley Sandbox at the University of Massachusetts Lowell. She had 60 seconds to describe Operation Canine. She placed second, winning $750. She also won the "fan favorite" category, as judged by the audience, for an additional $500. She advanced to the showdown round, competing for a $10,000 prize.
In that showdown round, Blanchet was one of 10 finalists who competed in front of a panel of six judges and an audience of 150. She hoped to place second or third, to take home more cash. Then her name was called for the top prize. "I almost fell over," she said with a slight laugh. "I was in complete shock."
The prize included admission to Sandbox's Accelerator Program, a 12-week boot camp for entrepreneurs. She is attending business classes and workshops and has paired with a mentor.
She has recruited four members for a board of directors and hopes to also find an accountant or veterinarian to serve. She is developing a website and identifying other grant sources to increase funding.
Blanchet is looking for veterans' groups and shelters to work with. She hopes to pair her first vet and canine next fall. "I hope to organize them into training groups," said Blanchet, a mother of two young children. "That way, they can have some camaraderie."