K9s For Warriors trains shelter dogs to heal PTSD Veterans, gives new life
SAN DIEGO: The moment an improvised explosive device exploded on a busy road near Baghdad, Iraq, 2005, SSgt Randy Dexter, one of many Veterans with PTSD, had his life abruptly re-programmed. Dexter, at 19, joined the Army to be a combat medic. He studied military medicine at Brooke Army Medical Center, where he acquired advanced skills to treat people with any combat-related trauma. This U.S. Soldier, trained to save lives, received his own rescue by K9s For Warriors.
On April 05, 2005, a few months after landing in Iraq, Dexter was with a squad of ten in three Humvees which rolled out from Camp Liberty. When the IED exploded, the only member of the squad injured was the lead gunner, who fractured his forearm on the turret.
Due to the blast that reached across a six-lane road, a small sedan on the opposite side went through Dexter’s convoy and slammed into a tree. Dexter provided aid to the car occupants, who were frantic, speaking Arabic. The right side passengers suffered injuries, with lacerations, and some burns. The left side driver lay slumped over in the front passenger’s lap.
“He had a hole in the side of his head that was about the size of my fist, if not a softball,” said Dexter.
The man took one deep, deep breath every 5-10 seconds while Dexter tried to open his airway and get him breathing better. But the daunting hole in his head froze Dexter momentarily, but then snapped out of it. An Iraqi National Guard ambulance extracted their wounded. Dexter learned the man with the gaping injury passed away later that day.
Dexter ruminated, “Did I do the right thing? The guilt knowing he died really played on me.”
Combat PTSD is a silent hell of suffering for many Veterans.
That night Dexter started having nightmares. The next day they were back on the road, in a game of deadly war roulette. Troops braced for the ‘pucker factor’ – “Is today ‘the day?’” and that is life out there.
John Musgrave, USMC Ret., a Vietnam Veteran, shares his war-induced fears in NPR’s episodic series: The Vietnam War by Ken Burns.
Musgrave made a chilling admission while describing his experience at a listening post at Con Thien, South Vietnam, 1967 (near the DMZ). He said it ‘was like getting a death sentence at a trial’. Three Marines out there with a radio, so close to the enemy at times – he could hear them whispering to one another.
“When my kids were growing up and that’s the first time they found out daddy had been in a war they said, “Why do we need to outgrow our nightlights, when daddy’s still got one?”
A former military contractor with PTSD finds a way to help Veterans.
Brett Simon, president, and co-founder of K9s For Warriors, understands the fallout of combat. Simon was one of a group of 15 handlers and dogs fulfilling a contract Vohne Liche Kennels had with the Army to test the first dual-purpose trained [explosives and tracking] military working dogs in the theater of war. Consequently, they went to Mosul, Iraq in 2005.
Simon and his group integrated with several units, including 2nd Infantry Division. During the first year Iraqi citizens had a voice in their government, Simon and his canine searched election polls in Mosul prior to the elections to make sure the Iraqis could come in and vote safely.
All handlers and dogs returned safely home, but Simon brought back PTSD. His mother had read about how dogs were helping people with PTSD. Simon’s background was law enforcement where he trained dogs for 10 years. Simon and his mother came up with the idea of service dogs for Veterans.
They didn’t have a large budget to start a purpose-bred dog program but similarly believed that shelter or rescue dogs could do this job. A local veteran in Jacksonville, FL, and a big black dog named Sarge, found on Craigslist, were the first to go into the program in 2010.
“We never looked back,” said Simon. “Our mission is just to help dogs and Veterans.”
A shelter dog must meet K9s’ parameters and graduate their structured program. The age must be two years or younger – for the longevity of the handler. Weight must be 50 to 55 pounds and height must be 22-24 inches tall in order to teach a mobility command called ‘brace’ for warriors of all sizes.
Shelter, rescue, or owner-surrendered canines undergo an initial temperament assessment. If they pass the tests for anxiety/fearfulness, food motivation (for training purposes), they go back to K9s For Warriors Ponte Vedra, FL, campus for a complete medical workup and wellness check.
Once assigned to a trainer, dogs go through a 4-6 month program of more temperament assessment plus obedience and task training. Also, the pressure is placed on the dog to handle public access, busy places, noise, and vehicles – ensuring the dog is sound. The dogs learn mobility commands to brace, block, and cover.
When a dog graduates – K9s matches attributes of both dog and warrior. The final paring happens the day a warrior arrives. “We have a year and a half wait list,” said Simon.
Stitches, chest tubes, morphine – the pledge to serve a nation tests the best.
Certainly, troops experience shock and awe, whether in intimate brawls, surprise attacks, or any lethal encounter. Combat medics run through bullets, deafening explosions, choking smoke and blinding fire, to get to the injured. A medic’s training is second nature – yet war causes extraordinary injuries.
“I had to be prepared to make sure I could keep them alive long enough to get them either on a Blackhawk (MEDEVAC), a Humvee ambulance or whatever was to come. That was my job…which is pretty stressful, if you can imagine,” said Dexter.
Noteworthy is the eagerness, patriotism, selflessness, and a will to fight cruelty and evil that sends our men and women to battle. Expertly trained, they topple and deter oppressive regimes, quell chaos, keep world economies free-flowing, and assist with humanitarian crises.
They are very good at it – saving us from the dirty work. A medic can stop the bleeding, assist the breathing, and dull excruciating pain, yet in contrast, a fix for trauma in combat is elusive. Haunting, gripping, instant recall can be life-long.
The brain records war atrocities.
Bodies torn apart, people displaced, livelihoods destroyed, along with battle sounds and smells are absurdly foreign, morally disturbing, and physically challenging.
A Viet Cong shot Musgrave in the chest with a machine gun, causing a permanent disability. The enemy shot two other Marines trying to get to him. The average age of a Vietnam Soldier was 22, dropped into an unfamiliar jungle environment, hit by waves of skilled and determined executioners who tunneled, tracked, hid and struck with fury. Consequently, this kind of survival grinds into brain networks and is hard to forget.
“My hatred for them [Viet Cong] was pure. Pure. I hated them so much. And I was so scared of them…and the scareder I got, the more I hated them,” said Musgrave.
Out of 2.7 million that served, over 58,000 American troops died and another 304,000 wounded. How many of them received treatment for PTSD is unknown. For their tremendous sacrifices, these weary warriors faced an indifferent and hostile America.
Like Vietnam, insurgents fight for oppressive control over real estate in the Middle East.
Dexter deployed again to Iraq in 2007-2008, when sectarian violence fueled a growing insurgency. President Bush increased the number of American troops in Baghdad and Al Anbar Province to assist local forces. Dexter served as a medic and personal security for General Rick Lynch, Commander, 3rd Infantry Division.
To avoid the stigma, Dexter bore his PTSD in silence.
“I wanted to be a soldier, and I felt like if I said anything, I wouldn’t be able to do my job.”
Things worsened after his second deployment. Dexter self-medicated with alcohol. He met his second wife Becky in 2008, who didn’t know the details of Dexter’s combat experiences. Dexter didn’t talk to anyone about it except soldier buddies who were there.
Becky inspired Dexter to ask the Army for help.
“I had to go into detox, but lost my position. Had to work night shift hours where I couldn’t touch patients,” said Dexter.
Four years later the Army said, ‘Okay you can’t do this anymore’. This Soldier served over ten years as a combat medic, including 27 months deployed.
As Captain was learning mobility commands, Dexter was shoring up for civilian life.
Dexter spent the last year of military service at Balboa Naval Hospital, San Diego, to get healthy and transition out of the Army. A non-drug multi-pronged approach of varied therapies and recreational activities helped more than pills that made Dexter feel ‘like a zombie’.
For one therapy he paired up with a beautiful Golden Retriever named Ricochet, a service dog.
Ricochet helped Dexter transition from not talking about his PTSD, to someone who ‘would not shut up’. Having loved dogs all his life, he and his wife realized this was something that was going to work. Ricochet’s handler, Judy, introduced Dexter to K9s For Warriors.
In August 2014, Dexter woke up on K9s campus ‘freaking out with anticipation’. He was led to the kennels and introduced to his new service dog, Captain.
“I will never forget that day, I love that day. Before that I’d spent the nine years living in hell,” said an emotionally-charged Dexter. “Since that moment we’ve been inseparable, spending every second of every day together.” History had changed. ”Dogs want you to smile and be happy.”
Dexter and Captain traveled the country as advocates for PTSD service dogs.
They also completed a college degree in Communications Studies at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas and won student Veteran honors and accolades.
K9s keeps track of Veterans and service dogs.
Dexter got a call from K9s, who follows up on their 445 graduates (to date). It was an offer to head up K9s’ new training facility in Alachua, FL. Dexter excitedly accepted and hence joined K9s ‘peer to peer’ mentoring. He and Captain now ‘paw it forward’ to other Vets in need.
“The great thing about K9s For Warriors is it’s free for Veterans,” says Dexter.
The only expenses are travel to the K9s For Warriors campus and home. Each service dog costs K9s $27,500 due to expenses for rescue, housing, food, healthcare, training to graduation, equipment for the warrior, and a 21-day period of bringing the Veteran through the program with their dog.
K9s For Warriors relies on the giving spirit of donors, volunteers, and corporate sponsors. Visit the K9s for Warrior website to help support their work.
Stryker Orthopaedics is crazy about what K9s For Warriors is doing for America’s Veterans.
Jack Benecke wanted to play football for the Army and participate in an Army-Navy football game. He attended West Point and because of his experience there he pursued a military commitment. While at school, Benecke saw the opportunities to work with diverse men and women, ‘get dirty, jump out of airplanes, slide down ropes, play with weapons, travel and be adventurous’.
As a result, he did airborne, air assault and Ranger School, the Army’s premier direct action raid force. He joined the infamous 101st Airborne division and worked in 2nd Brigade of the 101st as a field artillery officer, who controlled fire support assets for a light infantry maneuver company.
In the Army, Benecke got an MBA, which led to his current role as a General Manager with Stryker Orthopaedics, Great Lakes Branch – a world leader in medical technology. He oversees sales and marketing functions logistics, customer service, for distribution of total knees, hips, shoulders, ankles, trauma and extremity implants.
Though never in combat, he understands the hardships of today’s military,
“Stryker’s involvement and commitment to support all Veterans, government installations and VA facilities make me proud. Additionally, these efforts offer some peace of mind for many of the great leaders I worked with throughout my active-duty. Great leaders like General Robert Caslen, Col Greg Gadsden, and Col Pat Work. I am sure these Stryker priorities give some reassurance and confidence for their soldiers upon return from deployments,” said Benecke.
“I feel like K9s For Warriors is an incredible opportunity to rescue Soldiers…and frankly there’s never been a support like this that I’m aware of for our Vets when they go back to their homes,” added Benecke.
Benecke remembers the first K9s service dog Stryker sponsored for a female Air Force Veteran.
She had the heart-wrenching job of getting those killed in action on an airplane to fly back to the United States. The dog sensed her anxiety telling her story at Stryker’s military appreciation ceremony in front of a large audience – that her cortisol levels were going up. “That canine got right up next to her and was beside her the entire ten-minute presentation,” he said.
Stryker integrates internal resources to support K9s for Warriors handing a leash to a serviceman or woman suffering from PTSD, traumatic brain injury or other military trauma as a result of military service post 9/11.
“It’s a palpable culture. Everybody is excited about it,” said Tommy Gray, Stryker Associate Communications Manager and former U.S. Marine.
At a national sales meeting, Benecke relates Sales Representative Stephen Vincent’s challenge. Vincent, with Stryker for 20 years, stood up in front of 1600 sales reps with executive leaders, saying, “This K9s For Warriors program – it resonates with me. I never served. I might never have been deployed, but I’m so proud to be a part of what Stryker is and what they do for our Veterans.” Money to sponsor four more service canines was raised in a single meeting.
Stryker, as a corporation, has donated 19 service dogs since partnering with K9s For Warriors in 2015. At the July 2018 SENIOR PLAYERS Championship in Highland Park, IL, Stryker made its seventh donation of the year at their Patriots Outpost venue. That’s over $120,000 in seven months. More dogs are on the way, thanks to Stryker employees who catch K9s fever and give to something greater than profit.
K9s For Warriors is the largest provider of service dogs to Vets in the country and the second largest service dog provider.
“It’s a good feeling to watch the handlers grow with that dog, because PTSD is isolation, depression and things are so bad with these guys we have an epidemic of 22 Vets a day committing suicide,” stated Simon. “We have multiple stories of guys that attempted suicide who are now one of our graduates. Their suicidal thoughts have not disappeared, but have dramatically gone down.”
Young men and women enter the military getting their first crack at life on their own. They come from small towns and big cities, all very different and unique.
Yet when you put them in uniform and on the worst of battlefields, they forge togetherness and surpass our limited ideas of valor.
America’s warriors follow orders and do it well. For those left with the scars,
“I’m not sure if we’ll ever find a cure for PTSD, but we can definitely help them recover and get back to life and live it.” Brett Simon, K9s For Warriors.