Alachua County is newest site for nation’s largest provider of service dogs for disabled American veterans
Very much like the beat up piece of deep brown leather leash he wears diagonally across his body with a frayed segment almost completely chewed through, K9s for Warriors graduate and new Alachua Florida K9s director Randy Dexter explains, “I’m strong and a little tattered, but I’m not broken.” The leash he’s showing me is frayed because the first day a warrior meets his or her dog there is a symbolic gesture of putting on the leash that is not taken off for anything except showering for three weeks. It’s umbilical cord bonding, soldier to dog.
In Randy’s case he was on so much medication at the time he got his dog (14 different mind-numbing drugs he adds) that the first morning his new dog Captain needed to go out he couldn’t be woken. Desperate, Captain began chewing through the leash and Randy woke up right before his dog finished the job and took him out. “I realized I had to change the way I was doing things; this leash is a reminder to me where I was and where I never want to go to.”
Serving as a combat medic in Iraq in 2005 and 2006, he was hit with an improvised explosive device (IED) in 2005, but it was acting as a medic for two terms in Iraq that began giving him his nightmares that was later diagnosed as PTSD. “The Army doesn’t prepare you for the smells and feelings, it changed my life forever,” he says. He coped with his PTSD and panic attacks by self medicating with alcohol every night, drinking himself to sleep to avoid the nightmares, and it worked for a while. But nothing really worked for that long. He had tried numerous interventions to help him cope including regular therapy as well as detox, music, art, equine and surf therapy. “I’ve done it all; all of them helped but having Captain by my side every day has helped the most,” he adds. Before Captain he used to think daily of killing himself and had his freedom taken away for two months because he was deemed a risk to himself.
Recent studies by the RAND Corporation, a research and analysis nonprofit institution, indicate rates of veteran suicide are much higher than previously thought, as much as five to eight thousand a year (22 a day and at least 20% of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans have PTSD and/or depression). When TBI (Traumatic Brain Injury) is added in the mix, the number climbs even higher.
Randy had both PTSD and TBI, and in 2008 when he met his wife he finally asked the Army for help. In the interim he had also gotten a brain injury while playing football and he was physically ill, depressed and wrestling with his ongoing PTSD problems. The last 14 months of his Army career were spent in the hospital where, in 2012, he was introduced to the therapy that would change his life and lead him to Florida, the K9 Inspired Community Integration.
He was paired with a service dog named Ricochet and every week the two of them were together out in the community. “You see,” Randy explains, “with PTSD you don’t want to go anywhere; you isolate yourself. I never left home unless I went to the hospital.” Once he started working with his dog his wife began noticing something, instead of never talking he wouldn’t shut up. Ricochet was reaching him in a way no one and nothing else could, and at that moment he realized he might actually be able to get his life back together. He was told about K9s for Warriors and he got busy filling out the 37-page application, deliberately long to ensure the warrior is really serious about this commitment as well as learning everything possible about the individual to ensure he or she is paired with the right dog.
Randy flew to Jacksonville from Nevada to meet his dog. “The first day I met Captain I bawled like a baby; I knew my life was going to change forever,” he says. “I’ve been in the depths of hell and I’m in this place because of K-9’s for Warriors.” For three weeks Randy lived with Captain, learning first the simple commands that would help them learn to function as one. Randy became hyper-vigilant, so he felt he had to watch his back and know everything that was going on around him, another symptom of PTSD. With a simple command “Cover” Captain quells the sense of threat. “I don’t have to be scanning everything around me; I can actually be in the moment.”
A comprehensive analysis found that while PTSD rates may be only in the 9% range for some soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, they jump to 31% a year after deployment and that 50% of those with PTSD don’t seek treatment. Not surprisingly the waiting list to be part of the K9s for Warriors program now has an 18-month waiting list.
The program was started in 2011 in Jacksonville, Florida by Shari Duval after her son Brett Simon came back from Iraq a changed person. He had been a contractor for the Department of the Army as a bomb dog handler serving two tours, and she thought finding a way to use his love for animals and get him involved working with dogs could help him heal. In the process K9s for Warriors was begun, and they have now rescued 895 dogs and paired 418 of those dogs with warriors.
K9s for Warriors is the nation’s largest provider of service dogs for disabled American veterans; 90% of the dogs are rescue dogs, many from Alachua Animal Services. Back when Randy went through the program it costs about $10,000 to train a dog and pair it with a warrior (the soldier never pays a penny, all funds are donated) and the cost has now risen to $27,500.
As director of the Alachua facility, a large part of his job is to fundraise. and get the Gainesville community involved here as it is in Jacksonville, where there are more than 200 volunteers helping support the work being done. “The pressure is on,” he says, “to replicate the model (in Jacksonville).”
The facility in Alachua is set on 67 bucolic acres, donated by the Gold family, and includes a home with nine bedrooms, seven baths, a pool house and pond pool with fountain. The idea is to offer these warriors a place to heal as they live and work with their new dogs.
As we end our tour of the facility Randy allows Captain to go off leash and the second the leash is removed he discards his serious, service dog mentality and begins racing around the property doing miniature loops. “Captain and I are two peas in a pod. They must match the dog’s personality with the warrior,” he adds. He and Captain like to sleep in and since he’s active despite what his 36-year-old body has been through, Captain is an active dog. For some soldiers their dogs will be mellow or less active; it all depends on the needs of the warrior.
The goal of K9s for Warriors is to empower soldiers to return to civilian life with dignity and independence, a job Randy is excited to be part of. When you see these warriors and the tears in their eyes because of the four-legged fur balls, I can’t help but tearing up,” says Randy. “I know what Captain has done for me. It makes everything in life worthwhile.”
For businesses and individuals who wish to support this effort, Randy Dexter may reached at RDexter@k9sforwarriors.org. For more information on K9s for Warriors, visit k9sforwarriors.org.
By Jennifer Webb