Battle Buddies dogs help veterans heal

B.G. woman trains canines for former soldiers battling PTSD

By Ray Legendre, Columbian staff writer

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photoDiamond lays on the floor of the Fred Meyer in Battle Ground on Wednesday during training to become a combat veteran's companion.

(/The Columbian)

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BATTLE GROUND — Shannon Walker looked at Kevin Williams' damaged spirit and his yellow Labrador retriever's undisciplined demeanor and saw her chance. Her father had raised her to have reverence for veterans. In Williams and his dog, Sam, the dog trainer saw a way to thank a veteran for his service in a palpable way.

Walker's recent expression of gratitude to Williams, a combat veteran with post-traumatic stress disorder, has blossomed from one act of kindness into a full-fledged mission.

Since starting the nonprofit Northwest Battle Buddies in January, Walker has provided

trained dogs free of charge for three combat veterans with PTSD and is in the process of training a dozen more. Her waiting list has the names of 14 combat veterans.

Walker has owned and operated Man's Best Friend for 17 years, training thousands of dogs in the process. In just five months, Northwest Battle Buddies has become like a second job, she said.

Not that she's complaining.

"I love America, and I love veterans," Walker, 45, said.

Father's influence

Walker's late father, Glenn, who served in the Air Force, instilled her with a deep respect for veterans. The Pendleton, Ore., native recalled attending a rodeo with her father when she was young, during which he pointed out a veteran in the crowd and told her they were in the presence of a hero.

Ironically, Walker's father told her she was "making the biggest mistake of your life" when she decided to train dogs full time. Up to that point, she had been a "jack-of-all-trades", cleaning houses and serving as a graphic artist at a newspaper, among other things.

Her dog-training career came about unexpectedly. Fellow dog owners noticed her interactions with her German shepherd in a park, and a business was born. Walker started the business in Woodland, before moving it to Battle Ground in 1997.

On a shelf in Walker's office, she has trophies earned in regional, national and international events competing in Schutzhund -- a program that tests different breeds of dogs for their ability to participate in police-type work. Along the way, she learned from the best trainers in the business, but ultimately the best trainer was not human, she said. It's the dogs themselves.

Walker trained dogs of all breeds for almost two decades, she said, before the idea to train them for combat veterans clicked.

Around the same time Williams walked through her doors, Walker had trained a dog for a woman who had contemplated suicide. The dog provided the woman a safe haven, Walker observed. When Williams approached Walker, the trainer realized an obedient and watchful dog could have the same impact on a veteran dealing with emotional and psychological scars.

'Constantly has my back'

Williams served two separate six-month tours in Iraq as a specialist in the 860th Military Police Company, during which time he was involved in 17 firefights and wounded several times. When he arrived back in The United States in 2006, he found something more akin to a foreign world than home.

He has moved 20 times, by his own estimate, and dealt with addictions to alcohol and painkillers. Six men from his company have committed suicide since leaving the military, he said.

"It's been rough, to say the least," said Williams, a 27-year-old Purple Heart recipient who lives in Gresham, Ore. "It's extremely hard coming home. It's easier over there."

Williams, who declined to be photographed for this story, learned about Walker about six months ago while waiting to buy food for his purebred yellow Labrador retriever, Sam. A woman told him about a brand of dog food Walker sold, piquing his interest. From there, he bought dog food from Walker and asked if she trained service dogs.

Thus started Sam's three-month-long transition from a wild dog Williams couldn't take anywhere to one that "constantly has my back." Battle buddies wear a vest containing the words "Do Not Pet," alerting passers-by not to approach them.

"She's like a robot when she's wearing her vest," the combat veteran said. "She's extremely obedient."

Williams called his new and improved service dog the best medication he has tried. His panic attacks have become less frequent and he no longer feels the need to abuse alcohol and prescription drugs. He's been sober for a year, he said.

"Having a service animal helps keep you grounded," Williams said. "It's easy for people to get stuck in the past or worry about the future but your dog is always in the present moment."

'Newfound joy'

Just as Williams feels a change, Northwest Battle Buddies master trainer Ora Evans said she had observed a change in Walker.

"I have noticed it gives her a newfound joy," Evans said.

Walker's work has also made an impression on her twin 17-year-old sons, Jarod and Jacob Kendall, who will soon enlist in the Marines and Army, respectively.

"I'm really proud of her," Walker's son, Jarod, said. "Not only is she helping families by training dogs, but she's helping veterans cope with PTSD and hopefully lowering the rate of suicides (among veterans)."

Walker envisions Northwest Battle Buddies providing 7 to 10 combat veterans with battle buddies each month, said Ovie Muntean, the nonprofit's financial director.

To make this a reality, Walker will need money and volunteers. The cost of a single dog's three-to-four month training is around $10,000, including shots, food and other services. Trainers walk the dogs through public places to desensitize them to crowds and crowd noises. Walker gets the dogs from area animal shelters.

On Sunday, July 29, she will hold her first major fundraising event — a 1.8-kilometer dog walk that will start near Mill Creek Pub on Southwest Ninth Avenue in Battle Ground. Registration will start at 9 a.m. on the day of the event. Participants will be served a free barbecue lunch and have a chance to enter a raffle.

Muntean said in the future, he plans to approach wealthy philanthropists and foundations looking to "make a difference in the lives of veterans."

Training dogs, by now, is second nature to Walker. Raising publicity and promoting events for Northwest Battle Buddies remains a challenge, she said. It's a challenge she gladly accepts, though, because the men she provides dogs for are heroes, as her dad would have said.

"It is so much work and harder than I ever thought it would be," Walker said of running Northwest Battle Buddies, "but it's the greatest thing I've ever done."

Ray Legendre: 360-735-4517; www.facebook.com/raylegend;www.twitter.com/#!/col_smallcities;ray.legendre@columbian.com