Mary Cortani started Operation Freedom Paws in 2010 with financing from friends and family, and a “passion” to train service dogs and help her fellow military veterans who are struggling with health-related challenges in their daily civilian lives.
Since then, the San Martin-based nonprofit has paired 487 clients with service dogs—training them together through an intensive program and offering a “holistic” approach to therapy at the organization’s property on Llagas Avenue, according to Cortani. Operation Freedom Paws’ motto is “Four paws, two feet, one team.”
On June 24, Cortani, the founder and Executive Director of OFP, was honored as the District 17 2022 Woman of the Year for State Sen. John Laird’s district. The annual award aims “to honor the women of this state who are doing amazing work that is not always recognized at the state level,” said Justin Tran, Laird’s district representative.
For Cortani, it’s all about the clients, who she considers family.
“We promised you from day one that we would always be here, that we would always have your back and we’d give you whatever we could to help—and if we didn’t have the answer we would try and find the answer,” Cortani told a roomful of clients and their dogs who attended the June 24 ceremony. “Being part of your family and your life for 13 years now, it means something to me and it means something to this organization that you came back and you’re still part of this.”
One of those in attendance was Mariela Meylan with her family and her service dog, Teddy. Meylan—an Army veteran who was injured in combat in 2004—is the second client ever served by OFP, and Teddy is the second dog she acquired and trained with through the program since she connected with OFP in 2010.
Not all of OFP’s clients are military veterans. Some are first responders and children. Most of them suffer from Post Traumatic Stress, Complex-Post Traumatic Stress (CPTS) “and/or Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) symptoms, or other physical, neurological, psychological or mobility needs,” according to OFP’s website.
Clients are paired with their own service dogs, and the pairs stick together as they train side-by-side for the client’s specific needs.
Some of those clients say without a hint of exaggeration that Cortani, her crew and OFP saved their lives. Charles Fryman, a Marine Corps veteran who served in Vietnam, began taking his dog, Belle, to OFP in 2016 for civilian training.
One day, Belle began furiously licking Fryman’s hands and neck, he said at the June 24 ceremony. He told Cortani about Belle’s behavior, and she suggested Fryman go to a doctor for some exams.
Fryman learned that he was diabetic, and Belle would lick his hands when his blood sugar was dangerously high or low. After that, OFP set Fryman and Belle on a training program in which the dog’s job was to recognize Fryman’s symptoms and alert him accordingly.
Since then—and after a couple emergency incidents—Fryman and Belle together have stabilized his diabetes, he said.
Most clients are paired with dogs provided by OFP, though the staff and trainers will consider working with a client’s existing pet if they’re able to get through the training, Cortani explained. The vast majority of OFP dogs are rescued.
Ramon Reyes, an 18-year Army veteran, had been on the waitlist for OFP for about a year when they called him in 2017. A spot had opened, and OFP offered to pair him with his new service dog, Huey, Reyes said June 24.
Huey has been a “life changer” for Reyes and his family, he said.
“I honestly don’t think I would be here without Mary’s help, without Huey,” Reyes said, with Huey by his side. “That’s the way my life was going. If Mary could get Woman of the Year every year that would be great… She’s Woman of the Year forever in my life. I love you, Mary.”
Cortani’s combined passion for helping veterans and training service dogs comes from her experience as a dog trainer in the Army, where she served for nine years active and 16 years reserve.
OFP’s services go beyond providing clients with service dogs and related training. The organization offers group and individual therapy sessions; quiet, roomy spaces on the grounds—indoor and outdoors—for clients to relax; and 24/7 assistance available to clients in crisis, Cortani explained during a tour of the property June 24. OFP also works with other therapy providers to ensure the clients’ full range of needs are met.
The OFP program is completely free, and clients only have to commit to the time to complete their service dog training.
“If a client is in crisis and wants to come into their safe space, they can,” Cortani said. “We try to give them tools to be able to navigate their challenges.”
Cortani and OFP have earned national recognition over the years—including as a “CNN Hero” in 2012. Before accepting a plaque commemorating the District 17 honor, she was quick to give credit to her staff, board of directors and supporters.
“To my staff and board members, you help me to fulfill this mission every day. I could not do it without my staff, and without the amazing community support that I have,” Cortani said.
State senate District 17 includes south Santa Clara County, a portion of Monterey County and the entirety of Santa Cruz and San Luis Obispo counties.
Tran added that Laird “personally” appreciates the work the OFP does for veterans.
“He recognizes the importance of making sure we provide (veterans) with services when they come back. At the federal level, sometimes those services are not available to our veterans. Thank you, again for highlighting the needs that veterans have,” Tran said.