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Bills present local veteran with service dog Rebel for a cause

Western New Yorkers were pleasantly surprised when Terry Pegula emerged to purchase the Buffalo Sabres in 2011, which led to his subsequent acquisition of the Buffalo Bills and downtown redevelopment projects.

On Sunday, Pegula had another surprise for a lifelong Bills and Sabres fan when he presented retired United States Marine Corps Master Sgt. James Kozma with a service dog in the end zone of New Era Field.

“I already felt like a kid at Christmas, just to be down on the field,” Kozma said Monday. “What Terry Pegula did kind of startled me a little bit. Since he’s such a big deal, I was starstruck. When I got home, my mom asked me ‘what did he say to you,’ and I couldn’t remember. It was really surreal.”

Kozma, an Alden native who moved back to his hometown two years ago, had been on the waiting list for a service dog for 22 months.

“The process is a little bit daunting and there is no centralized way to do it,” Kozma said. “There are a limited number of dogs and it takes a lot of time and a lot of effort to train the dogs. I think it was easier to get in the military and fill out an application for security clearance than to get a service dog.”

The Bills began working with Paws of War last summer to match a local veteran with a service dog. Kozma was honored on the field at the end of the first quarter as part of the NFL’s Salute To Service initiative, and Pegula tapped him on the shoulder to introduce the five-month-old pit bull, Rebel.

“It’s a perfect fit,” Kozma said. “Rebel was rescued from a kill shelter. And I have a very big place in my heart for pit bulls because they are so misunderstood as a breed. As a soldier, I kind of have the same sense of myself as the dog does. It’s a match made in heaven, so to speak.”

Kozma enlisted in the Marine Corps in 1993 and served for 21 years. He did tours in Iraq and Afghanistan as well as humanitarian missions in East Asia.

“I’ve been all around the world, I’ve been stationed in a lot of different states around the country,” Kozma said. “But this community is the only place that ever felt like home. It’s always been special to me.”

Being recognized in his hometown made the experience all the more meaningful for Kozma, his younger brother Michael Tabaczynski said.

“He loves Western NY, the Bills and the Sabres and missed out on many years in WNY,” Tabaczynski wrote in a text message from Florida. “So for it to come full circle is incredible. So thankful for the Bills, the Pegulas and the Western New York community. I couldn’t be more proud to call him my big brother.”

Kozma bonded with Rebel while watching the rest of Sunday’s game in one of the corporate suites. “He sat on my foot and was in contact with me pretty much the whole time,” Kozma said.

Five-month-old pit bull Rebel will be trained to assist retired Master Sgt. James Kozma. (Photo courtesy of James Kozma)

Rebel will be trained to assist Kozma with managing the effects of traumatic brain injuries and PTSD, Kozma said.

“I lot of it has to do with emotional support and creating that bond,” Kozma said. “I’m into outdoorsy stuff and having a service dog will now allow me to take him with me and I’ll have that sense of comfort wherever I go.”

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