It’s looking like a big year for Northwest Battle Buddies.
For 2018 the nonprofit organization is planning to train more service dogs than ever as it looks to expand its ability to provide a source of relief for veterans suffering the invisible scars of war.
This year the goal is to train 24 dogs, about double what had been done in previous years, Northwest Battle Buddies founder and dog trainer Shannon Walker said. As each dog costs about $25,000 to train, the nonprofit is going to need to do some serious fundraising, though Walker and her team recently concluded filming on a video series designed to help spread the word.
NW Battle Buddies partnered with Portland-based production company Cinemagic Studios to help tell the stories of those who have been helped by service dogs in overcoming Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and the complications of traumatic brain injuries suffered while the vets were in service. Five days of filming wrapped Jan. 8 and the majority will be premiered during the group’s annual dinner auction fundraiser, Walker said.
Walker said this year’s fundraiser would be the biggest yet while also featuring a national hero. Making an appearance at their annual dinner auction fundraiser will be Marcus Luttrell, a former Navy SEAL whose experiences in Afghanistan are the basis of the 2013 movie “Lone Survivor.” Luttrell earned a Navy Cross and a Purple Heart following Operation Red Wings in 2005.
Apart from that star power, the videos include three personal stories to show the success of the teams. In one case a couple was interviewed to show how the animal can impact the whole family unit, not just the veteran. Another video shows a group of six “teams” — a dog and veteran pair — showcasing their operations in public places such as the mall and going through airport security.
The reason for filming was to help get the word out, something Walker needs to do in order to meet her goals. With the suicide rate of 22 veterans a day, she stressed how important it was to get the teams together and working as quickly as possible. That has been a major hurdle for NW Battle Buddies, as in some cases the waiting period was more than three years.
“When somebody is needing help and when somebody is looking for some answers to help them with their symptoms of PTSD, I don’t want them defeated by a one-, two- or three-year waiting list,” Walker said. “It’s the organization’s goal that they do not have to wait more than six months.”
“These service dogs represent hope to them; a hope of a different, better life,” Walker said, adding she didn’t want a long wait time to extinguish that hope.
On Jan. 8 the most recent group of six veterans met their team members for the first time. The dogs already had seven months to a year of training to make sure they were ready for working with the veterans for a six-week team training program.
Walker explained that there was a detailed application process looking at lifestyles that she used to pair a dog with a veteran. She said that first day of the pairing is emotional for the soon-to-be handlers who come in fearful and untrusting.
Within the first few days, however, “you can already see the walls coming down,” Walker remarked.
“Healing begins on day one,” she said.
She commented how in some cases on the first overnight stay with the service dog the animals were already waking their handlers up from night terrors.
Though Walker helms the nonprofit, she gave ample thanks to NW Battle Buddies board member and chief advancement officer Ovie Muntean. She mentioned that he had been with the nonprofit since almost its start, and this year he was integral in selling the concept of a video series to Cinemagic, drawing on his own experiences in film production which included working with Paramount Pictures, he said.
“When you hear the stories of the veterans it’s pretty touching, pretty moving,” Muntean said about the filming.
Both he and Walker have children in the military which makes their work with the organization that much more poignant as one of their own could end up benefiting from the relief service dogs can provide.
Muntean also has another reason for supporting the military. Born in Romania, he spoke positively of the acceptance of his family in the United States.
“I am thankful to live in the land of the free and that’s the whole reason I do what I do; I want to give back,” Muntean said. “I have been received with open arms, me and my family and many other Romanians.”
“We have been, in other words, adopted (by the United States) and given the opportunity to live our lives beyond anything we ever thought we could,” Muntean said.