Veterans life insurance

Army vet will kayak and bike 4,000 miles to raise money for service dogs

GLENVILLE — Jimmy Thomas, a 61-year-old Army veteran from Ballston Spa, plans to kayak from Glenville to Key West, Fla., and bike home, a 4,000-mile round trip.

It raises money to help military veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and other illnesses receive the help and companionship of a trained service dog.

Specialized service dog training can cost up to $50,000, which is prohibitive for many veterans. A survey found that less than 5% of military veterans who want a trained service dog have one, and Veterans Administration (VA) insurance typically does not cover the cost.

Thomas knows firsthand the benefits of an assistance dog. A contractor specializing in the restoration of historic homes, he battled bipolar disorder and stress-induced seizures. A doctor at Stratton VA Medical Center in Albany recommended a service dog for Thomas.

Four years ago, Thomas received his service dog, Boots, a golden retriever, through the Mountains to Miracles Veterans Foundation, a Montgomery County nonprofit group that helps veterans.

Boots made a profound difference in his life and Thomas is committed to bringing the benefits of service dogs to other veterans.

Thomas and his volunteers hope to raise a six-figure sum through donations and in-kind dog training to match service dogs with many veterinarians in financial need.

They named their project Doggie Paddle for Veterans. It is organized with the help of Rotary of Glenville and a dozen Rotarians oversee the effort.

Thomas will paddle a stretch of the Mohawk, down the Hudson River to New York Harbor, skirt the Atlantic Ocean coast for approximately 40 miles, enter the Intracoastal Waterway from New Jersey, and cross the Intracoastal Waterway to ‘in Florida.

Thomas will depart Saturday, September 24 at 4 p.m. during Glenville Oktoberfest at Maalwyck Park on Route 5 at Lock 8. Thomas will offer brief remarks, followed by a parade with well-wishers carrying his kayak to the Mohawk then let him embark on the journey.

Thomas hopes to average 20 to 25 miles a day, for a total of about 100 days in kayaks. At night he will sleep in a tent, motel rooms and overnight accommodations with good Samaritans. In Key West, he’ll pick up his shipped Ross road bike and cycle back, hoping to complete the return trip in about 30 days, averaging about 70 miles a day.

Thomas, reasonably fit at 6ft and 170lbs, is not an endurance athlete and has never undertaken such a grueling adventure before. “As I’m not trying to set a record, it’s mostly a mental challenge,” he said. “If I’m exhausted or the weather is bad, I’ll stop for the day.”

His training included a 2019 3500 cross-country bike trip from Oregon to Albany. He raised funds for Woofs for Warriors, which trains service dogs for veterans, including his own. He raised additional funds for the same group in the summer of 2021 by paddling a canoe the full 444-mile length of the Susquehanna River from Cooperstown, Maryland.

Thomas isn’t intimidated by his next kayaking and biking challenge.

“There are naysayers out there, but I’m not listening to them,” Thomas said.

“I always knew Jimmy to achieve whatever he had in mind,” said Beth Kissinger, who first met Thomas when they attended kindergarten together. She is the fundraising project coordinator and past president of the Rotary Club of Glenville, which spearheads the effort.

“Jimmy has great empathy for veterans and a lot of energy and enthusiasm for this mission,” Kissinger said. They reconnected at their Ballston Spa High School Class 40 reunion of 1979 and began formulating the project.

The seeds for Doggie Paddle for Veterans were planted during Thomas’ visits to Stratton VA Medical Center in Albany. Each time, he leaves with a twinge in his heart.

He would bring his service dog, Boots, who went everywhere with Thomas. Her fellow vets were sad when the dog left. Thomas knew they themselves would have benefited from a service dog, but the high cost was a hindrance.

“I’ve seen a lot of vets in very difficult condition, some missing an arm or a leg, or suffering from severe PTSD,” Thomas said. “I knew how much my service dog had helped me and I also wanted to find a way to get one for them.”

Thomas is a divorced father of five children, two daughters and three sons. His sons all served in the army or the army reserve. They are the fifth generation of his family to serve in the armed forces.

Thomas joined the military at age 18 in 1979, right after graduating from high school. He was a military police officer stationed at US Army bases in Germany.

He taught and coached sports at Mohonasen and Galway grammar schools, often choosing to work with troubled teenagers who had suffered trauma.

“Kids want consistency and to know that you care about them,” Thomas said. “I kept it simple and made it fun.”

Service dogs provide a base for military veterans struggling with PTSD and other psychological issues that could turn them into depression or suicidal thoughts.

“This dog depends on this vet 24 hours a day and sees him through the dark days. The vet builds an unbreakable bond with the dog,” Thomas said. “It makes them both better.”

Thomas should know. He and Boots were inseparable for the past four years and brought comfort to many people, veterans and civilians alike.

“Boots has developed a huge fan club,” Kissinger said.

Boots was diagnosed with cancer, declined rapidly and died two weeks ago aged 5. Words get stuck in his throat as Thomas tries to describe what Boots meant to him.

On the Doggie Paddle for Veterans website (https://doggiepaddle.org), there is a photo of Boots and Thomas and the blue Wilderness Systems Tarpon 160 sea kayak that he will paddle to Florida.

“He was an amazing dog,” Thomas said. “I dedicate this trip to Boots.”

Paul Grondahl is director of the New York State Writers Institute at the University of Albany and a former Times Union reporter. He can be reached at [email protected].