K9s For Warriors is the Ponte Vedra-based organization which helps post-9/11 military service men and women who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, traumatic brain injury and/or military sexual trauma reenter society with the help of service dogs.
The organization was founded by Ponte Vedra resident, Shari Duval, in 2011 after her son, Brett Simon, returned from two tours in Iraq with PTSD. After watching her son suffer with the disorder, Duval researched ways she could help him and found that service dogs could help veterans like her son.
PTSD, is a medical disability and the main symptoms of it are nightmares, flashbacks, depression, acrophobia. The dogs will wake their warrior companions from nightmares and immediately bring them out of that state. The dogs also serve as a buffer for veterans suffering from PTSD who often don’t like being approached. Additionally, the dogs are trained to go ahead of the warriors around corners and that helps the warriors feel at ease in public places.
“The dogs give the warriors the freedom to go out again,” Duval said in a 2012 interview with The Recorder. “They tend to isolate; they tend to not go into public and they avoid crowds. What they come here to do is change their lives. Not one dog has been returned and not one warrior has not had minimum to maximum results, and every one of them would swear by our program. Our mission is to return our warriors to civilian life with dignity and honor, and that’s our goal,” she said. “They walk in here on two legs and they leave on six.”
A new chapter
Last April, K9s For Warriors opened a brand new, larger facility in Nocatee that quadrupled the amount of veterans the organization is be able to help.
Dubbed “Camp K9,” the 17,000 square foot headquarters’ amenities include a full kitchen, dining hall, lounges, an exercise room, a library and staff offices. Every effort was made to provide a warm, inviting environment that serves as the veterans’ home away from home while they go through the program.
For the dogs, 95 percent of which are rescue or shelter dogs, the facility has five enclosed dog parks for training exercises and an in-ground, bone-shaped pool with a fire hydrant-shaped fountain for the K9s to play and cool off in.
The PARC Group, Nocatee’s master developer, partnered with Summit Contracting Group collaborated to donate both the land and construction of the facility, which is situated on nine acres of land donated by the PARC Group and the Davis family.
The old facility was located in a home off Roscoe Blvd. that could house only four military veterans during their three-week training period. Camp K9 can accommodate up to 16 veterans per month.
Although the facility quadrupled the amount of veterans the organization can accommodate per month, the wait list to get into the program is over a year long. So, less than a year after Camp K9 officially opened, the organization is expanding its operation again, building a second kennel that will be similar in size to the original kennel, but will more than double Camp K9’s capacity for service dogs.
When Camp K9 opened, it had 28-climate-controlled kennel stalls. Right away, the organization knew they needed another kennel, so fundraising efforts to build the second kennel were launched.
Additional dog trainers will also be hired to accommodate the increase. A groundbreaking ceremony for the second kennel took place Feb. 23.
The PAWS Act
It is estimated that 22 veterans commit suicide in America each day – a jarring statistic that the organization and other supporters are working to combat. Organizations like K9s For Warriors believe service dogs are the key to lowering that statistic and helping veterans reclaim their lives.
Rep. Ron DeSantis introduced the Puppies Assisting Wounded Servicemembers (PAWS) Act this week. DeSantis was joined by original cosponsor Congressman Keith Rothfus and representatives from K9s For Warriors and several service dog teams.
DeSantis, a Naval Reserve Office, introduced the PAWS Act in order to expand access to service dogs for veterans with post-traumatic stress.
The PAWS Act creates a pilot program that pairs post-9/11 veterans with the most severe levels of post-traumatic stress with service dogs. Additionally, they must have completed an evidence-based treatment and remain significantly symptomatic by clinical standards.
Qualified veterans may then be referred to an Assistance Dog International accredited organization or private provider for a service dog pairing. The VA will provide $27,000 per dog to the organization (as determined by the average costs to acquire and train a service dog). To maintain eligibility, including VA-provided veterinary health insurance for the service dog, the veteran must see a VA primary care doctor or mental health care provider at least quarterly.
Finally, the PAWS Act tasks the Government Accountability Office with conducting a study to evaluate the effectiveness of the program. The PAWS Act authorizes $10 million for the program.
“Thousands of our post-9/11 veterans carry the invisible burden of post-traumatic stress, and there is an overwhelming need to expand the available treatment options,” DeSantis said in a news release. “The VA should use every tool at their disposal to support and treat our veterans, including the specialized care offered by service dogs.”
“The PAWS Act is a simple bill that could have a dramatic – and potentially life-saving – effect on the lives of many. As we face an epidemic of veteran suicides, we must make sure that all of our returning service members are honored and taken care of, no matter the wounds they bear,” he said.
For more information about K9s For Warriors, visit www.k9sforwarriors.org.