Most of us can’t imagine what it feels like to return from war with traumatic memories that make it difficult to live back at home. But Brett Simon does, and when his parents saw him struggling after serving two tours in Iraq, they knew they had to do something.
Simon worked as a bomb dog handler and was also a former K9 Police Officer, so his family started researching how a service dog might help. A service dog ended up being so helpful, the Duval family knew they had to share this help with others; it was here the non-profit K9s For Warriors was born.
“Brett is the reason we are so successful,” his mother and the organization’s founder Shari Duval says. “The veterans relate to him and trust him because he speaks their language.”
K9s For Warriors rescues dogs they think will be good service animals, targeting those with no time left. They often pick up dogs with less than a week left to euthanasia at local shelters. From there, professional trainers spend months with the dogs, teaching them to become certified service dogs.
“All of our trainers that work with the warriors have deployed and have a service dog, just like them,” Duval says. “It’s what sets us apart.”
Veterans arrive at a state-of-the art facility in Florida, where they will spend the next three weeks training with their service dog. These veterans are suffering from PTSD or Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI). They are full of anxiety, depressed, withdrawn from their families, and most have contemplated suicide.
“One of the warriors said it like this: ‘Remember how it feels when you’re almost in a car accident and your heart rate accelerates and the adrenaline courses through your body? In a matter of seconds, you know you’re safe and go back to your daily life. A combat veteran may get that feeling from everyday life multiple times a day,'” Duval recounts. “All these ‘normal stimuli’ trigger the adrenaline rush. They don’t let their guard down, they can’t sleep, and when they do, nightmares haunt them.”
K9s For Warriors helps veterans get past this with the assistance of their dogs, to find what they call “the reset button.”
“We teach them how to be in civilian society again, to learn to trust again,” Duval explains. “They start interacting with their families and their friends. They go school and get jobs. Their future becomes bright again.”
The dog’s role is to provide constant companionship and recognize when the veteran is showing signs of distress; the dog can sense when a warrior is about to have a panic attack and prevent it from happening.
“The dogs will be with the warriors 24/7, they will never be alone again,” Duval says. “The warriors become a part of something bigger than themselves again.”
K9s For Warriors has struck a chord where the VA hasn’t. A Department of Veterans Affairs study shows 22 veterans commit suicide each day, a number Duval has a hard time stomaching. She thinks the VA is overwhelmed and can’t handle the number of veterans who need them.
“The easiest thing to do is prescribe a drug,” Duval says. “The kids don’t want to be zombies, they want real help. Prescription drugs aren’t the entire solution, it’s a bigger problem than that.”
When Duval started K9s For Warriors, she was hoping to help 12 warriors a year but quickly surpassed that mark, pairing 50 canine-warrior teams each year. Thanks to the program’s 95% success rate, the demand for the organization’s services skyrocketed and they have been running a year-long waitlist.
“Our waiting list is so long, it breaks my heart,” Duval says.
K9s For Warriors moves into their new facility this month where they can now pair 150-200 canine-warrior teams per year. It’s an exciting milestone for the mother who started out trying to find a real solution to PTSD for her son and ended up savings both veteran and canine lives in the process.
“We don’t know what God has planned for K9s For Warriors,” Duval says. “But we are grateful every day for the people and companies that have come together to help our military heroes and rescue dogs!”
Watch for more on K9s For Warriors and their new facility: