Nationwide, veterans make up roughly one in 12 civilian adults, or just over 8 percent. Here in Colorado Springs, that number jumps to 18.4 percent. Providing tangible help to our veterans who suffer physically or psychologically is at the heart of a new local nonprofit, Victory Service Dogs.
"I saw the need that our veterans had coming back from three, four tours and that they just weren't getting the help that they needed," says Executive Director Steve Corey, also a veteran. Through a partnership between Victory Service Dogs and All Breed Rescue and Training, veterans adopt a dog, then attend training alongside their animal in group classes with other veterans.
In the past year, Victory Service Dogs provided 23 dogs and service-dog training classes to vets. Another 29 veterans entered the training program with their own animals.
Travis Nelson, a local veteran, did three combat tours before his nine-year Army career ended in 2013. "They had me on 10 different medications, taken twice a day," he says. "Right now I am down to one."
Nelson adopted Joey, a German shepherd mix from Texas that Black Forest Animal Sanctuary rescued before he was euthanized. "Joey was a big part of helping me get off all those medications. I sleep better at night because I know he is there with me. I can go into public places more often. Before [Joey] I was a hermit."
Nelson's story shows a heartbreaking reality many combat vets face. When he got out of the Army, he had a hard time adjusting to civilian life. He locked himself in his apartment and suffered from severe depression. "When I got [Joey] it kinda forced me to get out of my shell, to go outside ... it's easier for me to interact with people now because I have him and I know he is there. He's my best bud."
"I've had some of these guys tell me that I've saved their life," says Corey. "I've had guys say 'Now I have a purpose to get up in the morning.'"
Nelson confirms the sentiment: "In 2013 I tried to kill myself, and, um ..." he pauses to gather himself, "It's better now. I have Joey, I have these guys and I have a couple friends I can talk to."
Nelson is also helping follow up with vets who are part of the service dog program. Victory Service Dogs covers all of the training costs with All Breed Rescue and Training, and up to $250 of any adoption fees. "Partnering with All Breed has made it relatively easy to find great dogs and there's hundreds of our veterans that could use a service dog," says Corey.
Victory Service Dogs' goal is to raise the funds to provide at least 10 local veterans with a dog and training that could change their lives. Find out more at victorysd.org.