LINDEN, NJ — In 2006, life changed forever for U.S. army veteran James Brereton, of Linden, the sole survivor of an ambush while on duty. The incident left Brereton wounded and with post-traumatic stress disorder, and the weight of this trauma became almost unbearable — until Brereton met Shari Duval, the founder of K9s For Warriors, a nonprofit organization that rescues and trains service dogs, then matches them with veterans living with PTSD, traumatic brain injury or other trauma as a result of military service post-9/11.
It was this experience that Brereton conveyed to a crowd last week at a special military appreciation day at the headquarters of Stryker Orthopaedics in Mahwah, where he spoke of his life-changing partnership with Burnside, a Labrador fondly nicknamed ‘Bernie,” who graduated from the K9s for Warriors program in August.
Brereton served as a Marine from 1987 to 1991, and entered the army in 1998, finally retiring in 2013.
Brereton said that although he attempted suicide and regularly struggled with suicidal thoughts, Bernie has changed all that, crediting his best friend with saving his life.
Brereton met Duval several years ago at a N.J. State Police veterans event, and that meeting led to his involvement in K9s for Warriors.
Opening remarks at the event were led by Bill Huffnagle, president of Stryker’s Reconstructive Division, who presented a donation, along with a Stryker vest, to Duval, for the sponsorship of a service dog. The $20,000 donation, made possible by the Stryker Women’s Network and other employees, will bring the total number of service dogs sponsored by Stryker in 2016 to five.
Stryker announced its partnership with K9s For Warriors in April, pledging to sponsor four service canines in 2016 as part of its PGA TOUR program, as well as pledging to make a donation to the organization for every Stryker hat purchased. Stryker will make its last donation of this year on Veterans Day at the Charles Schwab Cup Championship.
Stryker launched a partnership with the PGA TOUR in 2014 to help educate people about joint health through the activation of the Stryker Mobility Zone. As part of the program, Stryker pledges to sponsor service canines, as well as make a donation to the organization for every Stryker hat purchased.
Duval was inspired to start K9s For Warriors by her son, Brett Simon, a former civilian K9 police officer who completed two tours in Iraq. Simon, who lives with PTSD and TBI, believes that Reagan, his service dog, has saved his life on more than one occasion.
According to Duval, her son — a former K9 police officer who served two tours in Iraq, was in bad shape when he returned home from service. After he returned to service for the second time, he was even worse when came home again. “When he came back that time, he was worse than the first time,” Duval told LocalSource in an email. “Since he was a police dog trainer and handler, I thought perhaps training service dogs for people with PTSD would help. I said, ‘the first dog we are going to train is yours.’ He trained a dog for himself and slowly but surely, we trained more for one, two, three veterans at a time. I funded the entire operation myself. Then I got some supporters. Fast forward and now we’ve helped 258 veterans.”
Duval said that, had she known how daunting the task was to set up her organization, she is not sure if she would have embarked on the endeavor. “Just setting up your own nonprofit is complicated — the paperwork, setting up a corporation,” said Duval. “But I worked my way through it. I had friends who helped me through all the paperwork. Determination is a driving factor. It took me a year to get it set up properly. I had some very good friends who believed in me and what I was doing and decided to give me some financial assistance.”
According to Duval, she funded the organization herself for two years, and did not take a salary for four years. “Brett and I did all of the work ourselves,” she said. “We took care of the dogs and then we got some volunteers. Then we got a strong volunteer force. We grew based on goodwill and the good work we were doing. There was no way I could have accomplished it completely on my own.”
Duval, who is 71, started K9s for Warriors when she was 65, and said her expected retirement ended there and then. “When I started this, I was 65 and was at retirement age — that ended that right there,” Duval said. “I don’t know who’s crazy enough to start a nonprofit and who will go back to work when they are 65 years of age. But through my passion to save my own son, I realized that all the other mothers felt the same way about their sons and daughters. The fact that we are losing 22 veterans a day to suicide and there are mothers out there who are losing their sons and daughters, and I could have been one of those mothers in a heartbeat. That drove me to make a difference.”
Brereton recounted his experiences after that life-changing day back in 2006. “It was a traumatic event and being able to understand and deal with a life-and-death experience — that’s when I knew something had changed,” Brereton told LocalSource in an email. “PTSD is a constant of many things. You are constantly depressed and anxious, especially when you are in public. It’s an overwhelming sense of constant anxiety.”
Brereton said the impact that Bernie has had on his life has been incredible. “It’s been proven now and Bernie is testimony to that,” said Brereton. “These dogs save lives. Overall, the K9s for Warriors is family — that’s what it is, a family.
You come together with other folks and while experiences are different, you’re all dealing with the same issues. The dog is at your side 24 hours a day, providing a sense of security. It’s having the dog, especially a highly trained dog like Bernie. The dog can actually sense when something doesn’t feel right. It’s the dog and human connection. When you get wrapped up in your head, and when you connect with your dog, everything goes away. It was instantly life changing.”
Huffnagle spoke to LocalSource about Stryker’s Joint Replacement Division, where implants used in knee and hip replacements surgery are manufactured, along with the company’s transforming orthopaedic surgery with Mako robotic technology. “Stryker has a long history of supporting our nation’s military through education, programs, products and donations,” said Stryker. “We are proud of our strong relationship with K9s For Warriors, as the organization truly saves veterans’ lives.”
According to Huffnagle, Stryker presented its first donation for the sponsorship of a service dog to K9s for Warriors in 2015. “The experience deeply resonated with our team,” Huffnagle said. “This year, we wanted K9s for Warriors to be a pivotal part of our PGA TOUR program to help elevate awareness of the organization and its vast impact on veterans nationwide.”
Huffnagle maintains that too many veterans have ended their lives due to the pain and trauma they endure during combat. “I’ve been absolutely humbled to know Shari Duval, the founder of K9s For Warriors, and to meet with veterans who have graduated from the program,” he said. “They reaffirm time and time again the difference their service dog and the program makes. Our participation with veterans, especially a program that helps our service men and women regain their life after service, is important to us. We’re helping provide warriors with a new leash on life.”
Brereton said that he feels a great amount of gratitude to K9s for Warriors, and, of course, to Bernie. “It’s been life-changing,” said Brereton. “Now that I know what Bernie is capable of and how he can help me out, I can handle situations that would have scared me to death, like going to a crowded mall or being in an unfamiliar social environment. Now that I have him and the reliance that we have in each other, I guess in a way I am rediscovering life again. I am rediscovering what I was missing for so many years. Suffering with so many years of PTSD, and in my case, TBI on top of that, my experience with Bernie has been absolutely life altering.”
According to Duval, K9s for Warriors is now the largest service dog agency in the U.S. for veterans. “This is one program that is working where conventional programs are not,” said Duval. “Are we the be-all end-all? The only answer is no. But it is helping veterans 100 percent. And we have medical documentation to back that up.”
The risk of suicide for veterans is 21 percent higher when compared to civilian adults, according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. In 2014, 20 veterans died from suicide every day.