Steve Walls tosses a baseball across the floor of his mobile home to the sprightly puppy staring at him.

The Navy veteran met the 7-month-old mutt only last month, but the pair already are inseparable.

"Once I saw her, I took her out for a walk and something clicked," said Walls, 56, of Richmond Township. "She listened well to me that day. She's like my daughter that I never had."

Walls and Lacy, a dachshund mix, are the first duo matched in a new program called Patriotic Paws.

Launched in May by the Animal Rescue League of Berks County, Patriotic Paws offers a free cat or dog to veterans who served in a conflict area or who suffer from a service-related disability.

The program began as a way to thank veterans, and its effects can be profound, said Ashley Mikulsky, the Rescue League's director of development and administration.

"Statistically, they (companion dogs) help decrease the anxiety associated with PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) and they help increase involvement in the community," Mikulsky said. "It's a really essential partnership with the dog, like a friend, that's built in. It's unconditional, they don't judge."

The right medicine

That's exactly what Walls needed. He joined the Navy at 19, after growing up in the Riverside neighborhood of Reading.

He served more than six years, first fixing circuit boards, then supervising nuclear weapons loaded on ships.

Walls loved his time in the Navy, visiting Guam, Japan, Hawaii and the Philippines. But when his son Cpl. Jonathan M. Walls, 27, died in a 2009 roadside bombing in Afghanistan, Walls spiraled into a deep depression and stopped his therapy for a recent hip replacement. As a result, the muscles in his left hip atrophied and never fully healed.

With Lacy, Walls said his life is getting back on track.

"Since she's been here I've been a better person," he said. "I'm more energetic than I was before I had her, because before all I did was sit here and watch TV.

"She keeps me going, I'm not as depressed as I used to be, not as lazy as I used to be. I get up and do things, go places, and I know when I come home I've got someone to go home to. It makes all the difference in my life."

For each veteran, the Rescue League waives adoption fees of $125, which include spaying or neutering for the pet, a license and vaccinations.

Participants receive a leash, collar, T-shirt and dog bandana, a value of $50. Annual wellness exams for pets, which usually cost $190 per visit, are included for veterans with a service-related disability.

David Lis, 62, of Kenhorst spearheaded Patriotic Paws while struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder himself. He is one of about 30 percent of Vietnam veterans with PTSD, according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. Up to 20 percent of veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars showed symptoms of the disorder.

Welcome distractions

Dogs help Lis forget those figures and the carnage he saw while working as a combat photographer in East Asia in 1972.

Most days, he volunteers at the ARL's animal shelter in Cumru Township, walking dogs, often with his 9-year-old grandson, Brandon VanSchaick.

"I was able to get off my medicine after working up here," Lis said. "Just petting the dog reduces cortisol levels, which brings your stress level down, and it releases oxytocin, a soothing kind of hormone."

On June 15, the program placed its second adoption, a 10-month-old pit bull mix, with a Maidencreek Township veteran.

Lis, a Wilson High School graduate, doesn't qualify for the program he started because he already owns a dog, but he said seeing its first two adoptions is satisfying enough.

"I love it," Lis said, petting Oakley, a straggly yellow dog he's teaching to walk on a leash for the first time. "I feel so much better about myself.

"I have a mission again. This is my mission: Saving these dogs."

Contact Elyssa Cherney: 610-371-5038 or echerney@readingeagle.com.