Shari Duval found a way to help her son cope with the scars of war. By doing so, she's touched the lives of more than 100 troops returning home.
Her son, Brett Simon, did two tours of duty in Iraq as a K9 bomb handler. When he returned home, "he was a different person," Duval said. Going to Iraq to work with K9s was a natural choice for Simon, who had already worked as a K9 police officer and trainer in Ohio.
Retired Army Staff Sgt. Alonzo Lunsford, a survivor of the 2009 Fort Hood massacre, attends a Jacksonville Jaguars football game with his service dog, Bomber. Lunsford said Bomber "helps me stay grounded." (Photo courtesy of K9s for Warriors)
"He did two tours in Iraq but when he came home, I didn't know who he was — he seemed like a different person," Duval told TheBlaze. "He was losing weight, isolating himself and a lot of the general symptoms that I couldn't understand then. Eventually we realized it was the classic symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. I did an enormous amount of research on the subject and then thought, why not take our love for dogs and find a way to heal the soul?"
So Duval and her son rescued Reagan, a Belgium Malinois from a local shelter. And in return, Reagan rescued Simon.
Having a service dog helped Simon cope with his feelings of depression and restlessness. It also gave him a reason to live and a way of giving back, Duval said. Her son's knowledge of dog handling and his years of training became the foundation for K9s for Warriors, which they operate together as a family.
Founded in 2010, K9s for Warriors pairs wounded veterans with "man's best friend." Many of the veterans who've gone through the program have, like her son, been prescribed medication to help with their symptoms of post-traumatic stress, she said. Most veterans beginning the program come in with at least 15 pills they take a day, and some take as many as 40.
"That alone can be traumatic on the body and mind," Duval said.
"They have pills to fight depression, pills to get up in the morning, pills to go to sleep at night, pills to deal with pain, both physical and mental," she continued. "Some of them are like zombies when they come to us. I have seen the real difference this program makes with treatment, in combination with service dogs and many of our veterans see a dramatic decrease in medication."
Currently, the facility in Ponte Verde Beach, Florida can only take five veterans a month and the waiting list is more than a year long. Everything is privately donated by private citizens, through word of mouth and advertisements. Duval, 68, refuses to take money from government agencies and takes no salary from K9s for Warriors. In her community, more than 500 neighbors donate food to help Duval provide three meals a day to the service members going through the program.
Duval will be getting more veterans this year as the war in Afghanistan draws to a close. It was announced this week that her program has been gifted a new facility in Nocatee, Fla., from the Summit Contracting Group and the Parc Group, a land developer. The facility will house 16 veterans a month and can shelter approximately 70 service dogs.
She said it costs approximately $10,000 to graduate a soldier-canine team, which includes dog training, veterinarian care, housing, feeding and transportation during the process. The teams stay together 24 hours a day for three weeks living and training at the facility, she said.
The new facility will have a full clubhouse, resources, activities, guest speakers and psychological help and counseling, she said. But it will also cost more monthly to operate "so donations will go a long way to helping our warriors," Duval said.
James Carafano, a senior defense analyst with the conservative Heritage Foundation, visited the facility and advocates for the work Duval is doing.
"The impact of a service dog has is simply transformational," Carafano said. "For some, these companions are the difference between life and death. It goes beyond just the service member. Making a service member whole heals the whole family.”
The Department of Veterans Affairs is preparing to restart a study of how veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress are helped by service dogs. The department estimates that up to one-fifth of veterans who served in Iraq and Afghanistan suffer from post-traumatic stress. Some experts believe the number is actually much higher because veterans don't always report their symptoms or seek treatment. A 12-year study released last year found that nearly 22 veterans commit suicide a day.
Duval says the rescue dogs, combined with therapy, help relieve symptoms of PTSD, including depression, fear, hostility, aggression, nightmares and other issues that might be keeping veterans from living a full life.
Retired Staff Sgt. Alonzo Lunsford said there's no question his service dog has made a difference in his life.
Lunsford, a survivor of the 2009 Fort Hood massacre, was partnered with his Great Pyrenees dog, Bomber, last year. Lunsford was shot seven times by former Army Maj. Nidal Hasan and suffers from PTSD. He still has nightmares of the shooting and experiences restlessness after the attack.
Bomber is always by his side, Lunsford said.
"He knows when I'm feeling down," Lunsford said as he scratched Bomber's big head of white curly hair. "He's my friend and my companion. Bomber has made a huge difference in my life and he helps me stay grounded. [K9s for Warriors] saves lives."
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