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Two Gentle Giants. One Imposing Message.

For nearly two decades, Sergeant First Class Joe Swoboda served his country with distinction. But during three deployments to Iraq between 2003 and 2005, he saw and did things that changed him forever. He now has Post Traumatic Stress Disease (PTSD) as a result of those wartime experiences. The repeated detonation of bombs resulted in his traumatic brain injury (TBI).

“What I experienced in Iraq, day in and day out, made it nearly impossible for me to return to normal life as a civilian,” said Swoboda. In desperation, he reached out to K9s For Warriors, a Ponte Vedra organization that pairs service dogs with veterans diagnosed with PTSD and TBI.

“It changed my life. Having Lilly as my service dog is like having a ‘Battle Buddy’ by my side, all the time,” said Joe. “Along with the love and support of my family, I feel whole again.”

Giving Warriors And Shelter Dogs A New Leash On Life. Ninety-five percent of the canines used in the K9s For Warriors program are former rescue/shelter dogs or owner surrenders. K9s For Warriors carefully selects dogs for their program from animal shelters across the country and professionally trains them at their facility. Each dog is matched with a warrior to live, learn and bond together for three weeks in the company of up to four other warrior-dog teams. There is no charge to the veteran. Each warrior-dog team is a partnership, which means not only do dogs care for their warriors, but warriors must provide proper care for their dogs. And, it’s working.

K9s For Warriors is the only service dog organization for post-9/11 veterans that requires them to live and train on site with their service dog before going home. As a result, the program has a 96 percent success rate and, within six months of graduation, 92 percent of warrior graduates have reduced or eliminated their prescription medication. This year, K9s For Warriors launched “Stop 22,” a campaign aimed at raising awareness of and action to end the epidemic of veteran suicides. It is estimated that 22 veterans commit suicide every day. [1]

“We’re losing 8,000 of America’s military heroes each year due to suicide, which is heart-breaking and unacceptable,” said Shari Duval, president, K9s For Warriors. Let’s put that into perspective, if that’s even possible. 22 veterans a day are committing suicide. In two days and nine hours, that number climbs to 53 — the equivalent of an entire NFL football team. Over the period of two months, two weeks, three days and two hours, the number rises to 1696 veterans who lose their lives to suicide — the total number of players in the NFL.

Lilly, a Labrador Mastiff mix, was pulled from a high-kill shelter and trained to become a service dog by K9s For Warriors. She was paired with Joe two years ago, almost as soon as he arrived on campus. Now, Joe travels the country with Lilly, to talk to veterans about K9s for Warriors and to help bring awareness to the public about the Stop 22 Campaign. We talked with Joe at this year’s Global Pet Expo in Orlando just prior to the K9 Advantix II presentation, announcing its support of the program for the second year in a row. “I had a guy call me last month. He was desperate, and felt he had no other option but to kill himself,” said Joe. “The guy was married and had four kids. And he was ready to end it all. We talked and I told him I knew what he was going through. I was there. I told him about K9s for Warriors and how they changed my life; how Lilly has changed my life.”

“I tell veterans that you can still have a life after combat. It will be a different life, but it can be a good life,” Joe told us. “Seek help. Call K9s for Warriors. Get a dog and prepare to live,” he added.

[1] U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, Mental Health Services, Suicide Prevention Program, Suicide Data Report 2012, va.gov/opa/docs/Suicide-Data-Report-2012-final.pdf. Accessed 1/30/15.

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