Army Spc. Sue Downes, a 27-year-old mother of two, is the first woman veteran to team up with a service dog. Her yellow Lab provides balance when she walks, goes up and down stairs, or gets up from a sitting or fallen position.

As a member of the military police, Army Spc. Sue Downes, a 27-year-old mother of two, served on the front lines in Afghanistan for 10 months.


Before she enlisted in the Army in December 2004, the Tazewell, Tenn., woman worked as a nurses assistant and enjoyed spending time with her family, going to the park, and reading to her children.


Since Oct. 28, 2006, pain limits her activities.


Prosthetics replace the two legs she lost below the knee when an improvised explosive device ripped through her Humvee.


"I always wanted to go in the Army," she said. "I saw an opportunity and the next day I met with a recruiter. I knew I was going to be deployed."


Now the mother of Austin, 6, and Alexis, 8, says, "I just go with it. I've always had a positive attitude. Ask anybody. I've always had spirit."


Her husband, Gabe, admires her spirit.


"When her leg squeaks, she says, 'there goes that leg whistling again,' " he said.


Downes expressed more concern for the two fellow American soldiers who died in the attack.


"The most difficult part is not the physical part of losing my legs, but coping with the loss of my friends - Staff Sgt. Michael Shank from Texas and Cpl. Jeffrey Roberson of California," said Downes, who keeps in touch with their families. "I was with them for over a year. They became my family. It's hard."


Now, Downes focuses on the positive: her new service dog Lila, who she received at NEADS Dogs for Deaf and Disabled Americans in Princeton.


Downes is the first woman veteran to team up with a service dog. Her yellow Lab provides balance when she walks, goes up and down stairs, or gets up from a sitting or fallen position.


Lila and Downes recently completed training at NEADS. Lila learned to respond to Downes' commands to pick up a dropped cell phone on the floor, or press an automatic key pad to open a door. Lila also learned to bark on command should her new master need assistance.


NEADS Canines for Combat Veterans program helps service personnel regain their independence - one dog at a time.


Lila, Downes' 24-hour companion, was purchased from the Guiding Eyes for the Blind program in New York. After eight weeks of early curriculum training on the NEADS campus, Lila was placed at J.J. Moran Department of Correction in Cranston, R.I., as part of the Prison PUP Partnership Program.


The Prison PUP program is a partnership between the Department of Correction and NEADS. The program began at MCI-Framingham in 2004 after Superintendent Lynn Bissonnette left the Gardner prison. Since then the project has been a success.


NEADS now has pups at nine prisons in Massachusetts, Rhode island and Connecticut. Currently, five puppies are being trained at MCI Framingham - four Labs and one goldendoodle, according to Paula Ricard, puppy program coordinator. Five dogs have graduated from the program since its inception in 2004, according to Ricard.


The Prison PUP program operates in a medium-security environment. Each dog has a handler and assistant handler. The dogs, usually younger than 4 months, live with their handlers, who train them for at least 30 minutes, three times a day. The dog is always with the handler, except on weekends.


On weekends, the dogs go with a foster family for socialization.


The dogs typically are at the prison for 10 months before being sent to NEADS in Princeton for advanced training.


The program has been a boon for NEADS, according to Director Sheila O'Brien. "We didn't have enough foster families," she said.


With the prison program, dogs have a higher success rate than dogs raised by foster families, O'Brien said.


For one year, during the weekdays, Lila's roommate and inmate handler trained her to be a service dog.


On Dec. 3, Downes arrived at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C., where she was fitted with a prosthetic and received physical therapy and rehabilitation.


Downes continues to work on getting her strength back.


"It's coming back," she said. "I do about 50 situps in 10 minutes. I'm looking pretty good. I know I will get there. Since I've gotten this dog, I'm walking pretty much by myself."


With training complete, Downes and Lila soon plan to head to the local courthouse in Tennessee, where she will serve as its county clerk.


Leaving NEADS recently with her husband and Lila, Downes reflected on her service and injuries.


"I still love my country, I don't blame them," she added. "I blame the people over there. I still love the Army."


Kathy Uek of The MetroWest (Mass.) Daily News can be reached at 508-626-4419 or kuek@cnc.com.