When U.S. Army Sgt. Charles Hernandez came home from Iraq, returning to civilian life was more difficult than he'd expected.
His dreams were often troubled. He describes the feeling of "find[ing] yourself out there for a minute, and a minute too long."
"[Things were] difficult enough to lose my family," Hernandez said.
But three years ago, the retired veteran was partnered up with Valor, a lab-mastiff-mix service dog, and things started to change.
"At night he lets me know; he puts his face on the bed to let me know I'm having my nightmares," Hernandez said. "He lets me know I'm home. He'll come up to me and push me and let me know.
"Sometimes they do things that you don't even know you're doing," he said. "If it's in your body, they know."
Hernandez and Valor were just one of the human-working dog pairs to be honored at Assistance Animal Recognition Day on Wednesday, as N.J. State Senator Donald Norcross and N.J. Assemblyman Angel Fuentes hosted a day of proclamations at the Sewell campus of Gloucester County College.
Leah Levine, whose group Animals at Work advocates for greater accessibility for service animals, also was there with her working dog, Linus.
Linus knows 100 different commands, Levine said, and helps her overcome balance issues from her battle with multiple sclerosis.
"These dogs are our medical equipment, but it's really the civil rights of the person with the disability that we're trying to protect," Levine said.
"It's great for all of the individuals whose lives are improved on a day-to-day basis because they have a service animal by their side," said James Kutsch, President and CEO of The Seeing Eye, which for years has trained dogs who work with blind persons.
Decades of advocacy have allowed Kutsch into many more places with his working dog, Vegas, over the years, he said. But he still faces occasional denials of access to restaurants or public transportation, which is frustrating.
Almost as big of an issue for his safety, Kutsch said, is that loose dogs or negligent owners can just as easily create problems for the tandem simply by not paying attention.
"I think the biggest thing the general public can do is just be aware," Kutsch said.
Kutsch, Levine and Hernandez were hopeful that the proclamations issued Wednesday would lead to greater public awareness of the role that service animals play in the lives of people with all manner of disabilities.
"No one should be turned away because they utilize assistance animals," said Norcross in a statement. "People aren't informed about the importance of this partnership. That's what today is about."
Click the video above to hear from some of the members of the assistance animal community at Wednesday's event.