After serving two lengthy deployments in the Army during Operation Iraqi Freedom, Erik Babb medically retired in 2010. He lost a lot of friends during the war, and now struggles with post-traumatic stress disorder and a traumatic brain injury. When he began working at the Warrior Transition Unit (WTU) at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, Alaska, Babb acknowledged he was broken. However, he did not seek help right away. Instead, he self-medicated with alcohol and energy drinks.
When the WTU shut down because of budget constraints, Babb accepted a position with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in the Alaska District’s Contracting Division. His concerned colleagues urged Babb to seek help through the VA. “The VA in Alaska has never failed me,” Babb said. “Even working with a guy like me. I chewed up their interns.”
Babb continued to harbor thoughts of suicide even after going through a 40-day inpatient program in Tacoma, Washington. A former supervisor, Robin Norby, suggested Babb look into adopting a dog to help him deal with people, crowds and life. Stubborn, Babb refused to embrace the idea, until a defining moment. One day, on his way to an appointment, Babb was noticeably depressed. A coworker from the Corps stopped him, hugged him and reminded him that someone always cared.
Babb began researching service dogs through many resources and organizations. He was looking and hoping to find a dog that was hypoallergenic since his wife suffered from allergies. When he found out the cost of obtaining a service dog, he was discouraged, but refused to give up.
From Florida, Duke Snodgrass reached out to Babb via a telephone call after receiving his email. Snodgrass is the executive director and founder of 832 K9’s Deputy Dogs in Inverness. He and his wife Angela founded the organization 10 years ago in honor of their son Kody, a police officer and K9 handler with the Lake County Sheriff’s Office. Kody’s badge number was 832. In 2001, Kody died in a motorcycle accident.
“Kody loved Bloodhounds. Ever since he was a kid he wanted to raise them. We founded the Kody Snodgrass Memorial Foundation and began raising, training and placing Bloodhounds with sheriff departments in his honor,” said Snodgrass. “Kody always used to say that there is no excuse for a child to go missing, not when there was a Bloodhound around,” said Snodgrass. 832 K9’s Deputy Dogs has placed more than 200 dogs with law enforcement agencies across the country. They provide the dogs at little to no cost to the agencies. It costs anywhere between $10,000 to $15,000 to raise and train the dogs, which includes working with the K9 officers.
Listening to Babb on the phone, Snodgrass knew he wanted to help him. “I could tell that he was genuine, and could relate to some of the things he was going through. On some of the work we do with the Bloodhounds, looking for missing or abducted children, I’ve had some nightmares too. Not as deep as Erik’s, but stuff that I do not want to remember,” said Snodgrass.
832 K9’s Deputy Dogs was able to donate a Portuguese Water Dog to fulfill Babb’s needs.
Babb flew to Tampa to meet Snodgrass and the dog, who instantly jumped to greet him. “I felt like it was Christmas,” said Babb. “I almost cried. What had I done to really deserve this? I know there are others who are in worse shape.”
Inspired by his wife’s ancestry, Babb named his dog Matai, which means “chief” in Samoan. Matai is being trained to recognize symptoms of anxiety and tension in Babb, reminding him to be calm by tapping his foot or rubbing up against him. The dog will also wake Babb from nightmares. The pair is going through basic and specialized training.
“One thing Duke asked me to do was to pay it forward in life,” said Babb. “To take any opportunity to stop and listen to a young man or woman in need.”
Snodgrass has admitted that he had “a real problem with God” after his son’s death. He now realizes there was a bigger purpose in the tragedy. “It’s Kody’s living legacy. I come up to the cemetery to see him every day. He’s looking down at us and smiling,” said Snodgrass.