During her time working on a casualty response team for the U.S. Navy, Chief Petty Officer Amanda Damasiewicz handled more than 55 death notifications over the course of almost six years.
Dealing with death so frequently began to eat away at her.
She would drink to fall asleep and picked up smoking. Her angry demeanor prompted her daughter, who was 11 at the time, to call her a “monster.” Damasiewicz tried to commit suicide twice, and she was eventually diagnosed with manic depression and post-traumatic stress disorder. Going to an outpatient rehabilitation facility only her feel worse, she said.
In January, Damasiewicz found out one of her fellow service members had been killed in action, and she began cutting herself. She had reached her breaking point. Then, the phone rang.
It was K9s for Warriors, a nonprofit that pairs service and mobility dogs with veterans and active duty military members. Damasiewicz had been scheduled to meet her dog in August at the organization’s training facilities in Florida.
“Can you come early?” they asked.
Damasiewicz ended up attending K9s for Warriors’ three-week long residential course in Ponte Vedra, Fla., where she met Lazer, a black lab who would become her ultimate support system.
Lazer is one of more than 740 dogs that have been rescued by K9s for Warriors to help former and current service members cope with PTSD, traumatic brain injuries and/or military sexual trauma.
Shari Duval started K9s for Warriors seven years ago after her son, Brett Simon, returned home from two tours in Iraq, where he volunteered as a civilian bomb dog handler through the Department of Defense.
Simon had been a K9 police officer in Ohio prior to his service overseas, and although Duval wasn’t thrilled about him going to Iraq, she figured he was prepared.
“Of course, nobody’s prepared for war,” Duval said. “When he came home the first time, it was just night and day. He was gone.”
Her son distanced himself from everyone, including his mother. Simon ended up going back to Iraq for a second tour, but when he returned, Duval said she had “no semblance of who my son was anymore.” They tried family counseling, therapy and medication. Nothing worked.
Determined to find a solution, Duval began to research PTSD. She found an article about how service dogs could help those who had experienced traumatic events, such as rape, robberies or car accidents.
“I thought, well if it works for them, why wouldn’t it work for veterans?” Duval said. Her son helped her find and train rescue dogs capable of becoming service animals. Two veterans graduated from their first training academy. K9s for Warriors only grew from there. From 2011 to 2016, more than 367 men and women have completed the program at no cost to the veteran. K9s for Warriors pays $27,000 to train and place a service dog, and they rely on donations and corporate sponsorships from brands like Merrick Pet Care and K9 Advantix II.
During the three weeks they spend getting to know their dogs at “Camp K9,” veterans are able to talk openly about their issues and refocus on the mission at hand: Learning how to be dog handlers and read their animals.
“When we go to [Camp K9], you’re connected with your dog 24/7,” Army veteran Helyn Stowe said. Her mobility dog, Astro, is now her “lifeline,” she said. As a warning, he whines and lightly leans up against her about five minutes before vertigo hits.
The training also helps “reset” veterans, Duval said. For example, before Damasiewicz met Lazer, she took to sleeping on the floor or couch.
“The moment I got Lazer, I started sleeping in a normal bed,” Damasiewicz said. “Ever since her and I have been paired up, she’s been sleeping with me.”
This is one of the “hundreds of miracles” Duval has witnessed at K9s for Warriors.