RENO, Nev. - Mary Cortani of Gilroy, Calif., missed bowling in what would have been her seventh consecutive United States Bowling Congress Women's Championships this year, but it's because she was busy being filmed by a television crew as part of CNN's Heroes, a program that honors extraordinary people.
Cortani, 55, is founder and executive director of the non-profit Operation Freedoms Paws, an organization that unites rescued shelter dogs with veterans suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and other physical or emotional problems.
Veterans returning from combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan often isolate themselves or have difficulty returning to normal day-to-day life. Dogs help alleviate that problem and integrate humans into society faster, experts say.
"This is about the men and women who come back with invisible wounds," Cortani said. "I saw a desperate need, and I knew my past experience as a dog trainer could be put to good use to ease some of that dilemma."
Cortani relies on her 35 years as a police canine trainer of narcotics and explosives as well as a Master K-9 instructor through U.S. Army expertise, specializing in search and rescue. After a layoff in 2010 as an I.T. professional for Site-Smith Technologies, she returned to her love of animal training and began volunteering at a veteran Pathway Home in neighboring Yountville. She also enlists the help of her teammates, bowling clubs and fellow league bowlers to help raise funds, and she is planning a bowling fundraiser to defray some of the $13,000-per dog training costs.
"In 2010, I was approached by a former Marine who needed a canine for assistance but wasn't scheduled to get one for years due to such long waiting lists," Cortani said. "He needed the dog immediately to help him overcome anxiety disorders caused by combat hyper-vigilance."
Crowds or loud noises plague veterans, as do nightmares and over stimulation while out in public. Heightened anxiety and adrenaline are eased by dogs, who in turn receive a reprieve from shelter life - or death. Cortani chooses her animals based on three criteria: temperament, personality and "play drive." No specific breed or mix is required. Instead, it's all about how dogs interact with humans. Each animal/owner team trains for 32 to 48 weeks, and Cortani teaches the owner how to train the dog to his or her individual needs.
"Nobody was really addressing the PTSD for these vets, or the necessary treatment of traumatic brain disorder, seizures or anxiety," Cortani explained. "I saw something I could help in. I didn't want to reinvent the wheel - just make it run a little better."
Cortani's USBC Women's Championships bowling team coordinator Donna Morales of San Jose, Calif., has helped manage and schedule tournament appearances for approximately 250 bowlers every year over the past 15 years. The teams come from Philadelphia to New Mexico, most registering through her via referrals. She says that Cortani's home burned two years ago, and bowlers generously contributed to help rebuild it. This year, Morales raised $250 from those bowlers after sharing the news about the CNN filming and Cortani's organization.
"Mary and I bowl the same tournaments and share a similar average, but she is so quiet about all of the wonderful things she does," Morales said.
What began as uniting three vets and three dogs two years ago, evolved into the 75th dog and owner, recently. It earned Cortani a 2011 American Red Cross Award in the Animal Category, one of only seven awarded. If she prevails after CNN's airing of her special the week of June 7, she could win Hero of the Year, which has a monetary award associated with it. Some online voting by viewers will be involved, too.
"I am so humbled and honored by all of this amazing experience, and I am looking to also involve my bowling interests to expand what we can collectively give vets and animals," said Cortani, who owns three dogs, two cats, two horses and an African Grey Parrot with a 200+ word vocabulary. "It's really all about our motto: 'Four Paws, Two Feet, One Team Navigating Life Together.'"
In six Women's Championships appearances, Cortani had her best performance at the 2007 event in Charlotte, N.C., where she rolled a 586 series in singles on her way to a 1,582 all-events score.
Presenting sponsors for the 2012 USBC Women's Championships are Circus Circus, Eldorado Hotel Casino and Silver Legacy Resort Casino in Reno, Nev. Other sponsors include Harrah's Reno Casino, official brackets sponsor, Kegel, official lane maintenance provider, Humana, official registration sponsor, Steltronic, official scoring system, and supporting sponsors Storm Bowling Products, Nationwide Insurance, Sands Regency Casino Hotel and Atlantis Casino Resort and Spa and MyBowlingVacation.com.