Jacksonville’s San Marco Theatre played host to a special private screening last week of a new documentary that spotlights the efforts of K9s for Warriors to train and pair service dogs with veterans dealing with PTSD and traumatic brain injury.
Held July 21, the screening was preceded by a red carpet reception at Grape & Grain attended by K9s for Warriors staff, supporters, volunteers – and canines. Volunteer Mary Daniel was accompanied by service dog Delaney – named for retired Rear Admiral Kevin Delaney – while K9s for Warriors “Puppy Raiser Advisor” Barbara Jennings brought Victory.
“We are very excited to see the film,” Jennings said prior to the screening. “The documentary shows a K9s for Warriors graduation class where Victory’s sister, Faith, graduated with a veteran.”
The name of the veteran paired with Faith? Christian.
“Sometimes I think the matches are just meant to be,” Daniel said with a smile. “I know Delaney will definitely be paired with a Navy veteran to honor (Rear Admiral Delaney) and that tradition.”
Also on hand for the event were representatives from Early Times® Kentucky Whisky, which produced the short documentary.
“Early Times has a long history of working with veterans,” said Senior Brand Manager Marc Hindorff. “We were looking for a veterans’ organization to partner with and came across K9s for Warriors. We were just so impressed by the tremendous job they were doing helping veterans get back into society.”
What particularly moved Early Times, Hindorff said, was hearing from K9s for Warriors graduates about how the program essentially gave them their lives back.
“We thought, ‘How do we get that message out?’” Hindorff said. “The idea for the documentary just grew from there.”
Working with K9s for Warriors, Early Times connected with retired Army Sergeant First Class Joe Swoboda and his service dog, Lilly – both of whom were present for last week’s screening.
“We met Joe and instantly fell in love with him,” Hindorff said. “He has such a great heart and is so passionate about helping other veterans, and the documentary has given him a platform to reach even more of them.”
Titled “Reinforcements,” the documentary follows Swoboda on a five-day road trip with a young veteran named Travis who is struggling with PTSD. When Swoboda first proposes the trip from Washington DC to K9s for Warriors’ Camp K9 in Ponte Vedra, Travis is hesitant.
“I can’t really deal with crowds and public places anymore,” he says in the film, later noting, “When I came home, I didn’t do anything. I didn’t talk to anyone, I didn’t eat…It doesn’t go away. There’s no off switch.”
Swoboda assures him, though, that he will be there to assist him and the two begin their road trip by first visiting Arlington National Cemetery. From there, the pair travel to Kentucky, where they visit an Early Times barreling plant and pick up some dog houses made from barrels to deliver to Camp K9. While there, they meet with another K9s for Warriors graduate, who tells Travis that prior to the program, he was taking a “bag full of medications” from the VA that he feared was only making his condition worse.
Then, while training with his service dog at Camp K9, the veteran recalls, a thunderstorm triggered a nightmare. “Skip woke me up licking my face,” he recalls, “and I said, ‘I’m not taking any more meds from the VA.’”
The pair meet with another K9s for Warriors graduate in Georgia before arriving in Ponte Vedra to attend the K9s for Warriors graduation and present a donation from Early Times to the program. As the film concludes, Travis’s outlook appears to have improved and he expresses renewed hope for the future.
Following the San Marco screening, Hindorff noted that “Reinforcements” has been entered for consideration into 30 film festivals, and has already been accepted into the Louisville International Film Festival. After being shown on the festival circuit, he said, the film will be made available for public viewing, which Early Times hopes will raise awareness of the issues facing returning veterans.
“We throw the term ‘PTSD’ out there a lot without really understanding what that means,” he said. “I think the film does a really good job of showing what veterans go through.”
“We know driving down I-95 there are no IEDs, we know that,” he said. “But soldiers get so used to being on patrol in these dangerous areas. You get so used to looking at every piece of trash, every movement, every person around you, it drives you crazy. It gets to a point that vets just don’t want to come out of their house.”
Swoboda is pleased that “Reinforcements” has been entered in so many film festivals for the exposure it will bring to PTSD and the help that programs such as K9s for Warriors can offer to veterans who are struggling to reintegrate into civilian society.
“I want to stop the suicides,” Swoboda said. “I hope every vet in the country gets to the see this film, so they’ll know that there is life after combat. It won’t be the same, but it can be great.”