Pets for Vets - San Francisco VA Health Care System
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San Francisco VA Health Care System


Pets for Vets

Veteran with Pet

One of "Pets for Vets" most famous participants was Joe Rosenthal, best known for his photograph of the flag raising at Iwo Jima.

By Kellie Burdette Mendonca, Public Affairs Specialist
Friday, April 22, 2011

This summer the San Francisco VA Medical Center (SFVAMC) will celebrate its 11th year of operating “Pets for Vets,” a program designed to provide a pet to Veterans at no cost.  The brainchild of Russell Lemle, Ph.D., Chief Psychologist at the SFVAMC, "Pets for Vets" operates solely on donations. Dr. Lemle, a pet lover himself, used his own funds as seed money, and enlisted Voluntary Service to establish a General Post Fund for other donations. To date, the program has given out 169 four-legged companion certificates. 

“Pets for Vets” is a humanitarian effort in which everyone benefits. Cats and dogs are adopted into homes and Veterans gain the love and companionship that pets bring. “The elderly, who often experience disproportionate loneliness and loss, are especially well served by pets,” said Dr. Lemle. “Studies have suggested that pet owners have fewer annual visits to physicians, take less medication, recuperate better from certain surgeries and take more walks.”

To complement the free adoption program, the halls of the San Francisco VA Medical Center have been graced with a permanent 30-piece gallery of professional photographic portraits of Veterans with their pets. Captured in natural light, these black and white portraits reveal an animal-human connection filled with intimacy, candor and occasional humor. The theme has a rich poignancy: men and women who served their country and the animals that serve them with allegiance and love. The photo exhibit, entitled “Dog Tags,” has been extremely popular with Veterans, visitors, and staff alike, and has been featured on Bay Area TV news programs and the regional SPCA magazine, Our Animals. The exhibit also went on tour, with exhibits at the San Francisco War Memorial and in the halls of VA Central Office. All portraits were shot by Don Crowe, Ph.D., a Bay Area psychologist who is one of the leading pet photographers in the country. 

To learn more about Pets for Vets, please contact Russell Lemle at or Alexandra Harrison at


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