By Samantha Bartram
"When a warrior arrives at our academy, they arrive on two legs; they leave on six." -Shari Duval, President, K9s for Warriors
More than two million soldiers have served in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. According to 2011 figures from the Department of Veterans Affairs, 476,515 veterans with primary or secondary diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) received treatment at VA medical centers and clinics. As America's involvement in the global war on terror continues, an ever-increasing number of men and women return home bearing the scars of battle, both seen and unseen.
In Florida's Ponte Vedra Beach, a woman named Shari Duval realized she could make a huge difference in the lives of these individuals while also focusing on an equally intense passion - saving animals - by creating a program that pairs veterans with rescued dogs. To date, Duval's K9s for Warriors program has transformed the lives of more than 80 veterans and shelter dogs through a unique training program that capitalizes on the undeniable bond between man and dog.
The Beginning of K9s for Warriors
Duval was spurred to form her organization out of personal experience. She served for years as a volunteer with the Wounded Warrior Project, and her own son - a veteran K9 police officer and former contractor for the Army - had personal struggles with PTSD after returning from two tours in Iraq. Duval and her family endeavored to find effective treatments to help her son and turned to canine assistance as a possibility. Duval decided to channel the two years of intensive research and training she experienced on behalf of her son into something beneficial for the veterans community at large, and in 2011 formally established K9s for Warriors.
Duval developed a rigorous application process requiring veterans to describe their personal background and the circumstances under which they developed PTSD and/or traumatic brain injuries (TBI). "We require a letter from a medical doctor or a psychologist with a diagnosis of PTSD or TBI and that a service dog would benefit the warrior," says Sandi Capra, director of development for K9s for Warriors, adding that veterans must also show that they've been honorably discharged, provide references from their community or those with whom they served, and complete an interview and criminal background check.
It's a lot to go through, but for K9s for Warriors graduates like U.S. Marine Corps Lance Corporal (1984-86) and Army Sergeant (2006-2009) Sheri Martinez, the overwhelming need to change her life superseded any logistical concerns.
"I spent four years locked inside my head and house," she said.
"One day I ran out of dog food and I had no choice but to leave the house. I took my dog, Lola, with me to Petco and did not have a panic attack or any other issues. I was excited and thought I might be getting better. I tried going to Publix by myself and had a huge panic attack. I tried Petco again with Lola and again had no problems. I went home and immediately googled 'service dog training in Jacksonville, Florida.' K9s for Warriors came up first, and after I read their page, I felt like they were talking to me."
Martinez was one of K9s for Warriors' earliest graduates, and is a textbook case of the huge benefit service canines can provide to the humans who need them. "[The veterans] rely on the dog and the dog relies on them, and best of all, the dog gives unconditional love," Capra said. "Who doesn't benefit from that?"
What the Program Involves
To date, 83 veteran-canine pairs have graduated from K9s for Warriors, each team finely trained for their particular situation. Veterans need not have prior experience with dogs - "[the veterans] are given extensive training while they are [at the K9s for Warriors facility] for three weeks, including the health and welfare of their service dog," Capra says.
Classes are kept small - only four or five veterans each session. Certified trainers pair each individual with a canine, and, over 120 hours, human and dog go through the intimate and demanding process of training and bonding.
"By day three of the program [the veterans and their service dogs] are loaded into our van and reintroduced into civilian society. They train at the beach, parks, shops, restaurants, the airport, zoos," Capra says. By the end of three weeks, they spend a day as tourists.
Incredibly, all of this is at no cost to the veteran. K9s for Warriors covers the entire cost of their service dog-training program, providing veterans with a service canine, training, certification, equipment, seminars, most meals and housing, all free of charge. The only cost to applicants is transportation to and from the facility.
See Also: 7 Working Animals to Honor
Veteran and Dog Become a Team
In 2003 U.S. Army Staff Sergeant Justin Andrew Madore, now retired, was among the first wave of soldiers sent to the frontlines of the Iraq war. He fought in 10 different cities across the country, including in the capital Baghdad.
Initially, upon his return stateside, Madore thought things were fine. "That was, until the nightmares and flashbacks started happening; the burning bodies and all of the dead enemy soldiers' bodies started to become a nightly event," he says.
In 2004 he was again deployed, this time to Afghanistan. He was injured and sent home to endure multiple surgeries, receiving an eventual diagnosis of PTSD. In 2008, physicians recommended Madore be medically discharged from the Army. One of his attending physicians recommended he look into obtaining a service dog "as a last resort for my recovery because nothing seemed to be working for me," Madore says.
"I was on 43 pills a day, in and out of therapy, not sleeping, and the VA had labeled me 'housebound,'" Madore says. "I filled out the application to attend K9s for Warriors but had not yet heard back. One day, while on their website, I noticed they needed a dog delivered from North Carolina to Florida. They were having a tough time trying to figure out how to get him down there, so I just volunteered to drive him down. I had no idea he was going to be my dog until later on.… We met at a Bass Pro Shop in Concord, North Carolina, with the gentleman who was fostering Cody at the time, and we instantly bonded. I bent down to say 'hi,' and he just gave me his paw. From that moment I knew we were going to be best friends and battle buddies."
A New Fund-Raising Effort
While the veterans themselves might not be paying to attend K9s for Warriors, there are significant expenses involved in facilitating the program. Each veteran-service dog pairing costs $10,000 to achieve, from selecting appropriate shelter dogs (95 percent of K9s for Warriors' dogs come from shelters, and the rest are typically owner surrenders) to food, veterinary costs, equipment and kenneling.
The organization accepts no government funding. It maintains its operations solely through grants, corporate sponsors and private donations. Groups across the country sometimes hold fund-raisers for the cause, and one such event is currently underway.
Many significant players in the animal welfare, media and pet-product industries believe you can't put a price on a proven program like K9s for Warriors. One is Wendy Diamond, founder of lifestyle/media company Animal Fair. Since 1999, Diamond has made it her mission to bring as much media and celebrity exposure to the work of saving animals as possible.
Diamond recently learned of shocking suicide statistics among members of the military, specifically that every hour a veteran commits suicide, often as a result as PTSD. I immediately started doing research about how I could help and I found K9s for Warriors," Diamond said. "I have a new book coming out - How to Train Your Boss to Roll Over - and I had a tour planned. I decided, instead of just doing the book tour, I would raise money for this organization."
Diamond created the Bark Business Breakfast Tour. The 10-city romp across the country has a singular goal of raising $100,000 to support 10 veteran-canine pairings through K9s for Warriors. Diamond has rallied all her troops, from celebrities like Olympic gold medalist Ryan Lochte to the Go-Go's, castmembers from hit television shows, sports celebrities and more to entice as many people as possible to attend her tour in their nearest city. And the money raised in one city stays in that city.
"A veteran in that community will be able to apply to be a part of the K9s for Warriors program," Diamond explained. "When you donate, you will literally be supporting a veteran in your community." And when you do that, you help to save both a veteran and a dog.
That's a statement to which Madore certainly can attest. "How has my life changed? Well, I am not housebound anymore, and I can talk in public once again," he said.
"It used to take me over eight hours to go to a grocery store for as little as 10 items because my panic attacks and anxiety and hypervigilance were so high and often… They say that we save rescue dogs' lives. In this case, Cody and K9s for Warriors literally saved my life. I owe more to them than I can ever repay."
Another Level of Support
While wrangling big names in the fight to save animals is something Diamond has down to a science, she also needed to partner with businesses in order to achieve her vision for K9s for Warriors. Heavy hitters like Ellen DeGeneres' pet food company, Halo, Purely for Pets, American Express Open, and the pet-friendly Loews and Omni Hotel groups joined her in her venture.
"We're very proud to get involved in two ways: First, we helped to sponsor Wendy's event," says David Yaskulka, vice president of marketing communications for Halo. "In addition, we partner with Freekibble.com [which donates kibble when people play an online trivia game]. We worked with them to say that if we are raising money to pair 10 dogs with 10 veterans, why don't we feed those 10 dogs before they're paired with their veteran and then [for six months after], so they don't have to worry about feeding."
Such gestures give veterans and their new canine partners time to really focus on reacclimating to society and reconnecting with friends and family.
Having just graduated from K9s for Warriors' program in June, Georgia Army National Guard Staff Sergeant David Moore already has experienced an enormous change in the way he's able to relate to the world. After serving two tours in Iraq and Afghanistan and receiving diagnoses of PTSD, TBI, vestibular system damage and the loss of a majority of his hearing, Moore found himself struggling with tasks and relationships that once seemed easy. "I was quickly heading down a road that I would have never returned from," Moore says.
"[Since graduating from K9s for Warriors] my life has changed tremendously. I am smiling now and happy to be alive," he says. "There are good days and bad days; however, the bad days are few and far between. The biggest change for me has been the reconnection with my family. I am happier than I have ever been since returning from combat. I am doing things I struggled greatly with prior to getting [my service dog] Wilco."
Continuing to Make a Difference
Moving easily through society, at Starbucks counters, sporting events and office parties, most of us take for granted the ability to mix and mingle. For veterans suffering from PTSD or TBI, simply being out in public can be a trigger. Hypervigilance - a state of enhanced sensory sensitivity that can prove debilitating in everyday life - plagues many veterans, to the point where they cannot relax, even when in familiar circumstances. Although K9s for Warriors cannot address every case of PTSD among the veterans population, for the dozens of canine-veteran graduates, this treatment approach has made an immeasurable impact.
Initially, Captain Jason Haag didn't feel the deepest of bonds to his service dog Axl, a handsome 2-year-old German Shepherd. "I didn't have dogs as a kid, and I wouldn't say we had an immediate connection… I loved him to death, obviously, but that complete bond didn't happen for a few months," he says.
It took a snowboarding trip to Colorado - something Haag once thought he'd never be able to do again-to solidify his connection with Axl: "I was able to get on a plane to get out there and get on a snowboard. When Axl was there with me, just me and him, that probably was the turning point."
Hundreds of veterans continue to struggle and search for their path to recovery. For more information on how you can help soldiers and shelter dogs, visit K9s for Warriors, and get updates on the Bark Breakfast Tour, including ticketing information, from Animal Fair's website or Facebook page.
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