For almost two years, Jim Kuiken retreated into himself.
The retired Marine sergeant major would sit in his house for days at a time, getting up just once or twice to eat when he could no longer stand the hunger pangs.
Thirty years of service had caught up with the combat-wounded veteran, and he didn't know where to turn for help — until he found K9s For Warriors.
The non-profit, based in Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida, trains rescue dogs to become service dogs for veterans with post-traumatic stress or traumatic brain injury.
Kuiken met his dog, a black lab named Freedom, in January.
"It's like a weight was lifted off my chest," Kuiken said.
These days, "I'm going to the mall, which I could never do, I'm out on speaking engagements, I'm out engaged in life," he said. "I was just out celebrating Cinco de Mayo. The turnaround has been significant."
K9s For Warriors was founded in 2010 by Shari Duval, who was inspired by her son, Brett Simon, who returned from two tours in Iraq as a bomb dog handler suffering from severe post-traumatic stress.
Simon had been a canine police officer for 15 years before going to work as a contractor overseas for the Army, Duval said.
"In an effort to help him and doing research on the massive amount of post-traumatic stress and [high] suicide rates, I felt compelled to do something not only for my son but the thousands and thousands of veterans," she said.
K9s for Warriors is expanding its facility for training rescue dogs to meet the demand for service dogs.
Photo Credit: Courtesy K9s for Warriors
In four years, K9s For Warriors has trained and placed 164 dogs with wounded warriors across the country.
The group has had to limit its work to post-9/11 veterans, and those on the waiting list now have to wait more than a year to be placed with a service dog, said Duval, who also is the organization's president.
The non-profit is working hard to expand, she said.
At the end of May, K9s For Warriors will move into a new facility, quadrupling its capacity. At 17,000 square feet, the new facility will make the group the largest post-traumatic stress service dog agency in the country, Duval said.
Duval said the goal is to reduce the wait time to eight or nine months and serve more veterans.
"There'll never be a shortage of warriors," Duval said. "If we're losing 22 veterans a day to suicide that is so unacceptable on all levels. Our goal is preventing suicide."
With their service dogs, the veterans are not thinking about suicide, Duval said.
"They're actually going back out in life and doing things with their families, with their civic organizations, with their cities, with their towns," she said. "So many people benefit from the health and welfare of this wonderful veteran."
The dogs also have helped the group's veterans decrease their reliance on prescription medication, Duval said.
"There isn't a warrior who comes in who isn't on at least 15 different types of medications," she said. "They are lethal cocktails. Anybody that took this kind of medication is going to become despondent and irrational."
About 80 percent of the veterans who've received dogs from K9s For Warriors have reduced or eliminated their need for medication, Duval said.
"They're taking the pills just for what's needed instead of supplements to mask the disease," she said. "When we can get them clear thinking and chemical free, they start to feel human again."
Duval said she didn't expect her group to be as successful as it is.
"I didn't realize the massive need," she said. "I was hoping I could help 10 warriors a year. Now I'm hoping I can do 100 more."
To keep the work going, K9s For Warriors has partnered with Bayer. The company has promised to donate to the non-profit $1 for every package of K9 Advantix II, a flea and tick medicine, sold through May 31, up to $150,000.
K9s For Warriors has no shortage of wounded warriors who need help or dogs who need to be rescued, Duval said, but it can always use financial support.
"We have to pay employees, we have to pay trainers, we have electric bills to pay," she said. "What we have found is there are so many veterans in this country, but there are so many real, true Americans who want to help their veterans, but they don't know how."
Almost all the dogs trained by K9s For Warriors are rescues from area shelters, Duval said.
"We never buy a dog," she said.
But not every dog is a good fit to be a service dog, she said.
"If you screen 100 dogs, maybe 10 have the qualifications we're looking for," she said.
The group seeks dogs that are roughly the size of a Labrador or Golden Retriever. They also must be younger than 2 years old, be in excellent health and have the right temperament, Duval said.
It takes an average of eight or nine months to train a dog, she said, and the group is able to train about 15 dogs at a time. That number will grow to about 28 once K9s For Warriors moves into its new facility, and the number will further double within six months, Duval said.
Once the dogs are trained – in basic obedience but also skills specific to their future veteran companion – K9s For Warriors brings the veterans to its facility for a three-week live-in program. During this time, the veterans, who are carefully screened before they're accepted into the program, and the dogs meet, train together and bond before they're sent home.
"We take care of them just like we would our own family," Duval said.
During the three-week program, the veterans are "learning to be part of their own solutions, and they don't even know it," she said.
The group's trainers take the veterans and their new canine companions to places they would typically avoid, such as Home Depot or a movie theater.
"What they're going to learn is to get back out to civilian life with dignity and independence, and they do it without even realizing they've done it," Duval said. "They're under the impression they're learning to be the handler of a dog that's already been trained."
The dogs provide the veterans with a battle buddy, Duval said.
"One of the worst things [the veterans] suffer from is isolation, they won't leave the house," she said. "You have a highly productive, trained individual who now won't leave the house. Well, when you have a dog, you have to go outside. That dog needs to go to the bathroom. That dog needs to eat."
For Kuiken, Freedom was just what he needed to regain his independence.
Kuiken, who retired in 2003 after serving as the sergeant major for Marine Forces Pacific and was a Department of Homeland Security attache in Iraq in 2005 and 2006, said his post-traumatic stress got worse over time. It wasn't until a friend urged him to get help that Kuiken began looking online for resources.
Kuiken said he felt a connection to Freedom as soon as he met him.
"I walked in, and he was just sitting there looking at me with those big, brown eyes. It just melted my heart," he said. "That was it. I knew I had a buddy."