BATTLE GROUND, Wash. — The Battle Ground-based nonprofit Northwest Battle Buddies started seven years ago, training dogs to get partnered with veterans. This month it hit a huge milestone: pairing its 100th veteran with a service dog.
“It’s not just 100 service dogs that we’ve provided, we are talking about 100 lives, 100 families, fathers, sons, brothers,” said NWBB President Shannon Walker. "The impact to the community and to the individual is so significant. I’m super excited, it’s a big accomplishment."
The 100th team consists of Vietnam veteran Jim Koch, of Everett, Washington, and his service dog Bomber, an 18-month-old English Cream Golden Retriever.
“Everything feels pretty cool to be honest. I’m just on fire,” Koch said about being the 100th team.
Koch learned about Northwest Battle Buddies through his psychiatrist at the Seattle V.A. hospital, who told him a service animal could greatly help with his PTSD.
“He is just a lover,” Koch said about Bomber.
He wasn’t sure if he could handle a dog, but once he met Bomber for the first time, he knew they would be a great team.
“I was so surprised and it made me feel good. To be honest with you, I feel alive inside again already, and it’s only been a few weeks," Koch said. "He’s wonderfully trained and he’s a wonderful dog."
Koch and Bomber are in the middle of a five-week training course with Walker, where they are learning commands and training techniques. They routinely go to grocery stores and shopping malls as part of their training.
“Candidly, there is no way I would’ve gone to the grocery store in the daytime, or to the mall probably at all. I’ve spent the last six years pretty much inside, at home. I think Bomber is going to enable me, he already is enabling me to go out in public," Koch said. "I feel stronger and safer. My wife told me when I went home, she said, ‘You’re already a different person.’ I feel different, I feel alive inside.”
Walker said the dogs train for seven months with professional trainers before meeting their handlers. The veterans come from all over the country to Battle Ground for the five-week course.
“Our Vietnam veterans are the most close to my heart because they never got what they deserved when they came home. They never even got a ‘Thank you,’' Walker said. "And this was a way to say thank you in such a significant way, and they’re a great team."
While reaching 100 teams is a huge milestone for Northwest Battle Buddies, Walker knows there are many veterans still waiting for a service dog.
“We have many veterans waiting on our list, waiting for a service dog, looking for an answer to the symptoms and suicide rate of PTSD. Twenty-two veterans a day are committing suicide. We need the public’s help. We need people to partner with us, we need donations, we need money. We need to be able to serve these veterans in a faster, more timely way,” she said.