Randy can trace the moment when everything snapped: he was serving in Iraq as a combat medic when his unit got hit with an IED.
“Nothing prepared me for what I saw that day, and nothing prepared me for life back home. I didn’t know what PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder) was, or that I was suffering from it,” he says.
Fourteen medications did nothing to help his symptoms, and, worst of all, he was constantly contemplating taking his own life.
“And then…I met you.”
In the video below, veteran Randy speaks directly to his dog, Captain, thanking him for saving his own life, his marriage and enriching his children’s lives.
“Because of you, I am no longer a prisoner in my own home. Just like my battle buddies were my eyes and ears in Iraq, you are my eyes and ears here in the states,” he says. “You sleep in my bed, always making sure I am safe in my dreams.”
He was matched with Captain by K9s For Warriors, a Jacksonville, Florida-based nonprofit that provides rescued and trained service canines to warriors suffering from post-9/11 service-related traumatic brain injury, PTSD, or military sexual trauma.
“I know you came from a rough place too, you were found as a stray, you couldn’t find the right home,” he tells Captain.
“I don’t know exactly what you went through before we met, but I like to think we are both veterans who have survived our own wars.”
Countless veterans who have been helped by this program will attest to the ways in with their four-legged friends have saved their lives.
While serving as an Army Specialist deployed in Iraq, Bryan Foltz was ejected from a Humvee, which shattered his leg. The traumatic brain injury he suffered from as a result caused confusion, loss of focus and sensory overload. Foltz was prescribed eighteen different medications that he says made him feel numb — “like a zombie” — and alienated from his wife and kids, and, eventually, he attempted to commit suicide.
“The civilian world is rather lonely for veterans,” says Foltz. “We’re very close with each other, but we tend not to be able to relate to society in a way that seemed normal before.”
Desperate for an alternative therapy, Foltz discovered K9s For Warriors, and, after a year on the waiting list, he entered the training program and was paired with his black lab mix, Dell.
“You’re given your dog for the first time, and that part is an amazing experience that I will never forget,” says Foltz. “Because really, that was the moment that my life began to change.”
In the year since he’s had Dell by his side, Foltz says he no longer needs any drugs, and is now in his second year of law school, and feeling hopeful about his future.
“Dell allows me to almost hyper-focus on him and start to take things one step at a time and look around and realize ‘Hey look, the world’s not in complete chaos and exploding around me. I’m here, I’m present and I’m safe.’”
Because these dogs are in such high demand, Veteran Bill Stump also had to spend some time on the waitlist before being matched with his own furry companion. After serving in the Army as a Combat Engineer until 2009, with deployments in Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia , Kosovo, and Iraq, doctors told him his PTSD is cumulative — or as he describes it, “too many years of bad things.”
He was coping with “trigger episodes” like his divorce and his stepfather’s death and also suffers from traumatic brain injury and Multiple Sclerosis, and tried to take his own life multiple times.
It was a lot to overcome, but thanks to the diligent companionship of Woody, the dog that ultimately arrived to stay by his side, the program changed his life, too.
“I got through a very, very hard first few months, with the help of K9s and Woody,” he says.
Both Stump and Foltz went through a cost-free 21-day program that included 120 hours of free training, housing, meals, and veterinarian care.
For all veterans, the training process includes trips to parks, beaches, stores, and other public places, where the pairs work with trainers to master commands that ultimately help them calm the vets down in potentially stressful situations.
Foltz says that during a simple “my lap” command, his service dog will literally jump in his lap and get in his face so he can focus solely on Dell, which calms him down in high-anxiety settings like restaurants.
The K9 campus kennels hold up to 27 service dogs in training, with an expansion in the works to accommodate 27 more to shorten the current 2-year wait list.
Most of the K9s are rescues or shelter dogs who are pre-screened and trained for 3-6 months before being carefully matched to each new owner based on their individual goals, struggles, and personalities.
Since 2011, K9s For Warriors has graduated more than 200 Warrior-Canine Teams.
In addition to getting their lives back, many veterans find a new sense of purpose: Stump, for one, is currently completing an internship with the nonprofit in hopes of becoming one of the “Warrior Trainers” — the veterans who train the vet-dog teams.