Gilroy Woman Named National "Hero"

She saw a friend in need of a service animal and knew she could help him

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    NEWSLETTERS

    Gilroy's Mary Cortani took the stage among some of the world's top philanthropists on a nationally televised award broadcast this week in Los Angeles to acknowledge the title of hero.

    She was chosen as one of CNN's "Heroes" of 2012. 

    Cortani, an Army veteran herself, was recognized for spearheading a nonprofit organization based in Gilroy called Operation Freedom Paws. It matches veterans with service dogs to help the vets with post-combat disabilities. 

    Operation Freedom Paws started when Cortani got a call from her friend David Rios who confided in her that he was going to have to wait one to three years for a service dog and was contemplating suicide.

    "She saved my life," Rios said.

    "It's hard enough to come out of the service and get back into civilian life," said Cortani who served in the Army from 1975 to 1984.

    Both Cortani and Rios believe service dogs are a very important tool in the healing process.

    Drawing from her army training of Afghanistan street dogs into military dogs, Cortani said, "I thought, I could put that same model into effect for veterans here."

    Rios sat in the front row with his dog Shadow fighting back tears.

    "We've only scratched the surface and I want to create a model that other organizations around the world can use," Cortani said.

    When Cortani took the stage to accept the award, she said, "This award is not about me. It's about the men and women who serve this country and come home injured. We need to do more to let them know we care."

    Cortani said she was speechless upon hearing that she had been named a CNN Hero.

    "I thought, Wow, is this real? The award was great and awesome but for me, the bottom line is we need to improve our veteran's lives and and stop the suicides of these men and women who fight for our country," Cortani said.

    Before the show, actress Jane Lynch came to the Bay Area to visit Cortani's 10,000 square foot warehouse in Gilroy where the veterans and dogs work together and filmed a tribute video. Unbeknownst to Lynch, Rios had constantly carried her comedy 'Role Models' with him while he was traveling in combat. He said it was the only time he felt he could mentally "escape" and have a laugh. As a thank you, Rios gave Lynch his military dog tags.

    Through her experience with CNN, other fellow "Heroes" started to see dogs from a new prospective.

    "A lot of people there came from other countries where dogs are treated like dirt so they were surprised to see what we could do with them," Cortani said.

    Fellow "Hero" Thulani Madondo asked Cortani to help train the street dogs in South Africa to help the kids at the school he was recognized for starting. 

    At their last dinner in Los Angeles, a CNN executive producer spontaneously decided to give each winner an additional $10,000 to the $50,000 award.

    Cortani said the money will help cover basic costs but donations are still needed to continue their goal toward purchasing a permanent facility.

    The "Hero of the Year" was Pushpa Basnet, of Kathmandu, Nepal who supports children with incarcerated parents. Basnet received the grand prize of $300,000 toward her organization.

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