Mary Cortani: CNN Heroes Top 10 Hero

On September 20, 2012, CNN announced the Top 10 heroes in their CNN Heroes program that celebrates ordinary people making extraordinary contributions to improve the lives of others. Mary Cortani is honored to have been named as one of the Top 10. To learn more about the program, visit the CNN Heroes site. Operation Freedom Paws received $50,000 to continue their work. Mary is planning to use the money to build a permanent home for Operation Freedom Paws and expand the services for vets. We so appreciate your support for the work we’re doing.

In 2010, a former Marine approached Mary seeking assistance in acquiring a service dog to help him overcome anxiety disorders caused by combat hyper-vigilance. The multi-year waiting lists for trained dogs from existing organizations were just one more source of frustration for that returning vet.

Mary knew that she could leverage her extensive dog-training experience to train that vet to train his own service dog. She also realized there are thousands of dogs waiting for loving homes and that many of them have the right temperament for service work. Those factors combined to form a strategy that would dramatically reduce the waiting time.

The approach turned out to do so much more: It gave the vet a sense of mission and purpose, and as the training proceeded, it provided a sense of accomplishment and renewed confidence as well. Thus was born the Operation Freedom Paws (OFP) program, and for Mary, the alignment of her skillset, her capacity as a gifted leader and her life purpose. (Note: Operation Freedom Paws was originally named Operation Freedoms Paws to reflect the many freedoms that our service men and women give up to go into service, and also the multitude of freedoms that they protect.)

Mary has always considered her relationships with animals as an important part of her life. Those relationships started with her dog’s comfort, solace, and unconditional love that helped her through her childhood and teen years and continues with the companionship and collaboration that has been a hallmark of her working life.

She has been training dogs for more than 35 years, starting in the military where she prepared dogs for work in sentry and explosive detection. Mary is a Vietnam-era veteran and a Certified Army Master of Canine Education. Aside from general and advanced obedience, Mary has also trained dogs for assistance and wilderness search and rescue and has expertise in canine behavior modification. She is also an American Kennel Club Certified Canine Good Citizen© Evaluator.

Operation Freedom Paws enabled Mary to leverage her lifelong love of dogs, her extensive dog training background, her military experience and mindset, the cohesive and teachable training philosophy, and her intuitive sense for matching dogs to clients. Some of those clients would say that Mary also has the ability to see the possibility for others even when they don’t.

Most importantly, OFP expresses her long-held value that helping others brings great rewards. In this case, those rewards include seeing fellow veterans restore their sense of purpose, their important relationships, their confidence and their independence as they make progress in training their service dogs and find more activities within their reach as a service team.

“The most amazing thing,” said Mary, “is to see the person and the animal transform into this amazing working team where they just help each other navigate life and they create a new normal. My life is blessed. I may not be worth a lot of money, but I am very rich.”