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Soldier's Best Friend: New homes for dogs and new hope for Arizona veterans

Jeff Raebel is an Army combat veteran from Phoenix who suffers from post traumatic stress disorder, which makes his military career difficult to discuss.

“Soldier’s Best Friend has helped me with a dog that has helped me go out in public," Raebel said.

“My time in the service is just like many of the other guys and ladies out there. Um, you know um … ,” he said. 

Tilly, a standard poodle, stands ready to protect her man.

“Tilly’s always got my back. Tilly is also trained to wake me up from night terrors. Help clear rooms, make the world safe again," Raebel said. 

Raebel is far from alone. He’s one of many Arizona veterans who have been diagnosed with PTSD or TBI, traumatic brain injuries from their time in the service, including Litchfield Park’s Richard Powell.

“I was a forward observer in the Army and I served six and a half years before I got my brain injury. I was just thrown from my gunner’s hatch a couple of times and got some shrapnel in my groin from an RKG3 that came through our striker," Powell said. 

Powell’s dog is Koa, a Lab mix who also senses his owner’s unease.

“He’ll search my house without me telling him to search my house, like if I’m hypervigilant — he can smell it and if someone is in my house, he would alert me," he said.

Koa is a constant, loyal companion. Powell says his life depends on having a service dog.

“It’s just been a blessing. I take Koa everywhere. To church — he’s part of my youth ministry at church. He travels with me. He flies with me. Yeah, he’s been life changing," Powell said. 

Jonathon Bailey, a Marines vet from Phoenix, says a German shepherd mix named Anubis has saved his life.

“There are two times when I almost took my life and the dog saved me. So, I can say definitely yes, that I wouldn’t be here without my dog.”

Bailey says the unconditional support he gets from Anubis is something he simply can’t get from a human.

He recommends service dogs to other vets experiencing similar difficulties.

“Veterans, you know, we have a tendency to be selfless and not ask for help or say that someone deserves it more than me. You deserve it. If you need it, go for it. You know, this service is there for you. Take advantage of it," Bailey said. 

Soldier’s Best Friend is available to qualified combat vets in Arizona.

Mik Milem is the nonprofit organization’s executive director.

“When they come into the program, a vast majority of them are in a recluse state, they don’t like to be out in public. They don’t like going to the store. They don’t like crowds around, they’re on high vigilance, high in anxiety," Milem said. 

According to the VA, the suicide rate among Arizona vets is much higher than the national average. Milem says Soldier’s Best Friend, founded by veterinarian John Burnam in 2011, recognized the need to bring together canines and vets, helping both find safe places.

“What we do here is take U.S. military veterans who are living with PTSD or a traumatic brain injury and we team them up with a dog, most of whom have been rescued from a local shelter and then we train them together and form that bonding relationship until that dog reaches service dog qualifications," Milem said. 

Milem says there’s currently about 30 participating vets and that they have the room and funding to help about 30 more. But they could use some canine-loving volunteers.

“We always could use fosters, people that can house a dog for up to one month, after they come out of the rescue and before they are given to the veteran, just making sure that dog is going to be suitable as a service dog," he said. 

It’s a way to give back to people like Raebel, who has given everything.

“The biggest thing is knowing that you’re not alone. You’re not alone in any of it. That there are other soldiers out there that have gone through something similar, maybe worse, maybe not as bad, but we’re all a family and we can all help out. Having a service dog has opened my world back up," Raebel said. 

If you’d like to help or need the help, visit soldiersbestfriend.org

If you or someone you know may be considering suicide, there is help. Contact the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline by calling or texting 988 (en Español, llame al 988, prensa 2; for Deaf and Hard of Hearing, dial 711 then 988). You may also contact the Crisis Text Line by texting HOME to 741741.


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Phil Latzman is an award-winning digital journalist and broadcast professional with over 25 years of experience covering news and sports on a multitude of platforms.