Battle Buddies preparing service dogs for veterans with PTSD

By Tyler Graf, Columbian county government reporter

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Battle Buddies: northwestbattlebuddies.org and on Facebook.

BATTLE GROUND — Shawn Brooks hasn't been the same since he left the Navy in 1998.

After his return to civilian life, the Operation Desert Storm veteran was prone to violent nightmares. In crowds, he succumbed to crippling anxiety attacks. He self-medicated with methamphetamine, spending stints behind bars because of drug-related offenses, he said.

He'd been in combat — seen friends die in helicopter crashes. Those events took a toll on his psyche. Inside the man with a military-themed, wrap-around neck tattoo, there was a deep-seated distrust of others.

"I haven't been able to trust anybody," Brooks said. "I don't go out into crowds. I hadn't been in a mall for 10 or 12 years."

Then he found a big slobbering savior, wrapped in a brown- and-white package of fur. Her name is Bella, a 19-month-old St. Bernard, and she is the ballast in Brooks' topsy-turvy life.

Brooks was one of six veterans Friday who certified their four-legged friends as service animals for people suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. The certification means the men, who served in combat as far back as the Vietnam War, can take their animals wherever they want.

For men who have struggled at times to even leave the house, that means one thing — freedom.

Before they're certified, the dogs spend four to eight months training at Northwest Battle Buddies, the Battle Ground-based organization that provides service dogs to veterans. During the months-long training, veterans have little to no contact with their animals. That time apart can be heartbreakingly lonely, the veterans said.

Brooks and the other veterans walked their dogs Friday through a test course at Man's Best Friend kennel in Battle Ground, where the canines were judged on behavior and temperament. It was intended to show the dogs were friendly, obedient and helpful.

What's known as the "canine good citizen test" was the culmination of months of work for the dogs. For their owners, it was a nerve-wracking wait. Some said they hadn't slept the night before. If their dogs didn't pass the test, they wouldn't receive the certification. The months away from their beloved animals would be for naught.

"Nervous?" mused George Lonnee, hands clenched around his pit bull Rome's leash. "I'd rather go back to Vietnam to a firefight."

The former Marine, who served in the jungle in 1965-66 and 1968-69, saw his share of combat.

"Without the dog by my side," Lonnee said, "I'm at high, high alert, and my mind sees the enemy again."

Bradley Price calls it "the tornado" effect. A fellow Marine, he served two tours in Iraq, 2003-04 and 2004-05.

For him, the PTSD crept up slowly, and for years he refused to seek help.

"You have the mind-set, 'I've got all my fingers and toes, so there are people who need it more than me,'" he said.

Eventually, the PTSD became so consuming that, for an entire year, Bradley could barely leave the house.

Bradley's dog, a black Labrador, has been his Godsend. He's named the dog Gunnery Sgt. Michael Hannaman, after the military buddy who saved his life during a sniper attack.

His dog goes by the much shorter "Gunny."

Since Northwest Battle Buddies started a year and half ago, the organization has provided 14 veterans with service dogs, founder Shannon Walker said. With more being discovered about the seriousness of PTSD, with more soldiers dying of suicide in 2012 than in combat, she said she wants to grow the organization.

"We're relying on people who love their country and love their dogs," she said.

The organization relies entirely on donations, Walker said. And while those continue to trickle in — including $24,000 in the past month and a half alone — Northwest Battle Buddies has higher aspirations. On Sept. 20, the organization will hold a benefit golf tournament, "Birdies for Buddies," at Tri-Mountain Golf Course in Ridgefield.

The dogs mean so much to their owners, Walker said.

On Friday, there were nothing but smiles. All six dogs passed the test.

Brooks, the Navy veteran with the 19-month-old St. Bernard Bella, said he'll continue to take his furry best friend to the VA hospital to visit with other guys whose minds are addled.

It gives him a sense of wellbeing to share the joy his dog gives to others.

"I know a lot of them vets out there are just like me," Brooks said. "They couldn't cope in daily life anymore."

Tyler Graf: 360-735-4517; twitter.com/col_smallcities; tyler.graf@columbian.com.