Service Dog Helps Veteran Move Forward
Navy Veteran Damian was struggling upon returning home, until he met a ‘special soul’ who helped rescue him.
Damian + Shai
On a cold morning hike in Georgia, walking alongside the lake, Navy Veteran Damian observed his service dog, Shai, gracefully navigating the way.
“There was something really beautiful watching how he moved through things. I saw his silhouette and thought … as a kid, this is all I ever wanted to have in my life — a dog that I could walk around with in the woods and share these kinds of moments with.”
After serving overseas, Damian grappled with PTSD, until Shai changed his life and helped aid in his recovery.
"The fact that I’d be getting a rescue dog made me feel like I’d also be helping him."
Back in 2001, Damian was living in New York City, and when 9/11 occurred, he decided to join the Navy to serve his country. For 14 years, he served as a Naval Explosive Ordnance Disposal Technician tasked with disarming and removing explosive devices. He completed three deployments to Afghanistan.
When he returned home, he began experiencing symptoms of PTSD, depression and Traumatic Brain Injury. “I was functioning okay, but my home life was deteriorating,” said Damian. In 2018, he began attending Columbia University. He felt things getting worse, and it was then that he decided to get a service dog. “A friend of mine had gotten a service dog and said it had helped him get better sleep, which was a big problem I was having. I started looking into different organizations and found K9s For Warriors. Not only were they great to veterans, but they also used rescue dogs.”
Based in Florida, K9s For Warriors, rescues, trains and pairs service dogs with military veterans in an effort to transform two lives with each pairing. “The fact that I’d be getting a rescue dog made me feel like I’d also be helping him,” said Damian. “It added something to my focus, I was scattered, I could do well in school, but I was struggling.” Once Damian was approved, he pushed himself even harder to prepare for meeting his service dog and attending the training program. “Knowing I had been approved gave me a sense of purpose that was more profound, to work on myself even more while waiting for him. I went to more counseling that year than I had gone to in the three years prior.”
In June 2019, Damian met Shai. “The day we get our dogs is such a special experience. K9s For Warriors matches you with a dog on the first day of your training together. The way they match [service dogs and veterans] is incredible. It’s almost eerie, in a pretty way, how well they match dogs.” He remembers standing in an open grass field at the K9s For Warriors headquarters on a hot sunny day in Florida and seeing a unique looking dog walking toward him. “They brought him up to me and he put his paw on me; he put his forehead to my forehead. We bonded very quickly.” The next three weeks were spent training and practicing commands together before they both headed back to New York.
Shai quickly became Damian’s constant companion — and 93-pound lap dog — as he grew more perceptive of Damian’s needs. His strong connection and quiet demeanor helped Damian slow down and work on techniques to counter his symptoms. He helped Damian fight restlessness by getting him back to nature – trips to dog beaches, hiking mountains, even exploring Central Park.
“[Before Shai] I wanted to stay in my apartment away from everyone, but now with Shai I’m engaging in the world more. Shai has given me a quality of life that I had lost. His stillness and quiet help bring me calm. He accentuates all the good tools that I’ve learned and opens me up to other avenues to move forward.”
After graduating from Columbia in May 2020, Damian received a serendipitous call to join the organization that helped bring him together with Shai. He accepted a Warrior Trainer position and will now help guide veterans through the K9 For Warriors program, with Shai by his side.
“I love dogs. I read Call of the Wild every year on my birthday. Dogs are healing. It’s great to now see how trainers transform dogs and to see the beginning of their journey. There’s something special about all their stories, and what they do to give everything they have to you.”
As he prepares to enter the next chapter of his life, the fond memory of that sunrise hike with Shai makes Damian ponder how … now as an adult, many lifechanging experiences later, fate gave him the canine companion he always wanted as a boy. “Through this path I achieved something I had always wanted growing up; I had forgotten about that. You lose that after war. Being with Shai makes me want to find more of those moments. He teaches me about stillness and reminds me to remember awe and wonder.”
Whether providing support to our nation’s veterans, safeguarding our military bases or providing search and rescue, shelter pets are incredible! Together, we’re helping to provide the support, training and care to transform more shelter pets into Helping Heroes who serve our nation, and to help heroes, like Shai, and organizations like K9s For Warriors. Donate today to support Helping Heroes like Shai.