816 North

Warriors’ Best Friend program helps veterans, provides service dogs

A Liberty group called Warriors’ Best Friend focuses on training service dogs for soldiers with PTSD and traumatic brain injury. The group recently opened a training facility for the dogs near Liberty North High School. Terry Ralston of Topeka and Ivan, his service dog, paired up in February. Ralston is retired from the Army.
A Liberty group called Warriors’ Best Friend focuses on training service dogs for soldiers with PTSD and traumatic brain injury. The group recently opened a training facility for the dogs near Liberty North High School. Terry Ralston of Topeka and Ivan, his service dog, paired up in February. Ralston is retired from the Army. jtoyoshiba@kcstar.com

It would have been a tedious task for most, but to Corey Nixon, it was a monumental feat.

He made it to the store. In fact, he actually went to three stores looking for sticks to roast marshmallows.

It was a busy Saturday afternoon in the retail corridor in Liberty along Missouri 152. He dealt with traffic. He dealt with people.

The situation would be stressful and tiring for most anyone. For a veteran like Nixon, it was something he had not been able to do in years.

“That was just a freedom I haven’t had in I don’t know how long,” Nixon said.

Nixon is a former Army infantryman whose life has been dramatically altered by post-traumatic stress disorder, commonly known as PTSD. He could make that trip to the store because of his new dog, Bosco.

Bosco was a homeless dog the Liberty organization Warriors’ Best Friend rescued, trained and matched with Nixon. The group’s work is giving both a chance for a new life.

Warriors’ Best Friend is a nonprofit organization that focuses on training service dogs for soldiers with PTSD and traumatic brain injury, or TBI. The group has just opened a training facility for the dogs on 65 acres near Liberty North High School.

Founder Joe Jeffers said the program grew out of two of his longtime interests: veterans and homeless animals. Jeffers was a businessman who sold a company in the 2000s and decided to invest more time in things he really cared about. He was from a family of pet lovers and people with a deep history of military service.

“My entire family is Air Force. My wife’s family is Navy,” Jeffers said. “I’m the only male that’s never been in the military.”

Jeffers was a longtime animal shelter volunteer, and realized about six years ago there was a move to train homeless dogs as service dogs. Until that time, nearly all service dogs were bred for service.

“I combined my two loves and about five years ago, I started developing some software that would profile homeless animals and demonstrate what they have the potential to do,” Jeffers said.

Jeffers and his family promoted the dogs to organizations that were training them. Then they decided they could do it better and started Warriors’ Best Friend.

They began to pick the dogs, train them to help soldiers with PTSD and TBI, and do the matching themselves. The organization exclusively uses dogs rescued from shelters.

Jeffers decided to take a property that had been in the family for generations and turn it into a training facility. It opened earlier this fall. He hopes they will one day be able to train dozens of dogs at a time and have onsite lodging facilities and counselors available for veterans who come to be matched with dogs.

For now, they can train a few dogs at a time, and match soldiers in small groups. The soldiers spend nine days in Liberty and the surrounding areas working with the dogs in a wide variety of situations — shopping, attending sporting events or going to the movies.

The organization covers all expenses. Veterans do not pay a dime.

Nixon, who lives in Topeka, joined the military in 2003 and served two tours in Iraq. His challenges started just one month into his first deployment, when he was shot in the shoulder.

“That incident was the beginning,” Nixon said. “After that event you realize you aren’t super-human. This was the real deal.”

Nixon continued his deployment as a vehicle commander on a Stryker. His group was attacked several times.

“We started feeling like the duck pond at the carnival. You never knew what day your duck was going to get turned over,” Nixon said.

After he returned from his first deployment, he did not seek help because he didn’t want to let down his fellow soldiers.

“At the time, I was probably needing enough help that I would have been asked to leave the Army,” Nixon said. “I felt like I was going to be backing out of my commitment to the Army and my brothers if was to seek help.”

Instead, he became an angry person, and told himself he just needed to get through the next deployment and it would be better. The next deployment came. He did not get better.

“When I came home, and it didn’t go away is when I sought help,” Nixon said.

Nixon has been getting treatment for about six years.

He finished his enlistment and said the Army and the VA have been very helpful to him. However, he still felt he needed more. He struggled with uncontrollable anger, being alone and with going into unfamiliar situations.

He began looking into a service dog. Warriors’ Best Friend matched him with a half boxer, half Rhodesian ridgeback named Bosco. Immediately, Nixon started to see a change.

“Bosco is a very special dog in the fact that he was abused,” Nixon said. “When he was brought into the shelter, he had a broken front paw and lacerations on his body.”

That history made Bosco a good match for Nixon. The dog seems to sense when Nixon is beginning to get angry.

“I could tell a change in him almost immediately,” Nixon said. “He could tell my anger and my anxiousness. By him doing a normal response, I could tell that I was having an adverse effect.”

The dog’s response is enough to help Nixon calm down and not escalate his anger and anxiety.

The dogs are taught 25 commands, but three meet specific needs related to the kinds of physical and mental challenges soldiers with a PTSD diagnosis face.

“Block” signals the dog to create a barrier between the handler and everybody else. This is helpful in crowded situations, which can be extremely stressful for people with PTSD.

“Cover” signals the dogs to stand at their handler’s side facing the opposite direction. This allows the veterans to be comforted because their back is covered. “Brace” is helpful for soldiers who also suffer from traumatic brain injuries or other physical injuries. Following this command, a dog will stiffen its back so the veteran can use it to help with balance issues.

For Michael Ragsdell of Shawnee, the “brace” command is an important part of the help his Weimaraner Great Dane mix named Nani provides. Ragsdell has physical challenges connected to his 14 years in the Army. The 35-year-old has arthritis in his ankles, knees, back and hips.

He is medically retired from service. Ragsdell served in both Iraq and Afghanistan multiple times.

“My body gave out before the rest of me,” Ragsdell said.

Sometimes, Ragsdell falls at home. Nani can stiffen her back and give him a platform to lift himself up. She can also help him steady himself as he walks around.

“It’s much cooler than a using a cane when you’re out in public,” Ragsdell said.

Before Nani, the anxiety Ragsdell felt due to PTSD, in addition to his physical challenges, severely limited his life.

“I basically became a shut in. I would not leave my house unless I had someone with me,” Ragsdell said. “It was difficult for me to even consider picking the kids up from school or getting out of the house.

“There were many doctor’s appointments I called and canceled because my anxiety was just too high to leave.”

After many years of counseling and treatment for PTSD, Ragsdell started looking for alternative treatments. Through internet searches, he came across stories about veterans using service dogs, found Warriors’ Best Friend and decided to submit an application.

“After reading the mission statements of other places and then reading about Warriors’ Best Friend, they seemed more like they were in it for the right reasons instead of profit,” Ragsdell said.

Ragsdell said within two days of having the dog, Nani began to wake him up from nightmares.

“It was weird to me, but in the hotel, the second day of training, she woke me up from a nightmare and laid down on me and tried to calm me down,” Ragsdell said. “She was not trained to do that. That was just something she just did.”

The dog’s calming presence is grounding for Ragsdell, especially in the middle of the night. Nani wakes him up, reminds him he’s home, and stays awake with him. It changes what might have been a nightmare causing days of sleeplessness into an experience he can get over in just a couple of hours.

“My counselors recognized the work we’d been doing progressed in leaps and bounds in the time I’ve been with the service dog,” Ragsdell said. “I’m actually starting to have a life rather than just surviving.”

Ragsdell said the dog also helps him build a platform for conversations with strangers while he is out. It is something he would have definitely avoided before.

Ragsdell and his wife were also able to take a trip, a belated honeymoon, to Niagara Falls this year with Nani by their side.

“It was something I wanted to do forever, and I did,” Ragsdell said.

Jeffers said the work is worth it because he sees soldiers come through the program and become phenomenally different with their dogs. He said many of the veterans start out shy and become very open by the time they leave the program with their service dog. He knows the effect of the match extends beyond one person.

“Almost every one of these veterans who comes through the program has wives, moms, dads, kids, and it dramatically changes their lives, too,” Jeffers said. “The gratification comes from once you see your first dog placed with a soldier. That’s where the passion comes to do this. There wouldn’t be any other reason to do it.”

About Warriors’ Best Friend

The upfront cost for the organization runs about $10,000. All expenses, including travel, hotel and meals for nine days of training for the veteran with the dog, are all covered by the organization.

Ordinarily the costs of PTSD service dogs are not covered by insurance companies or the VA.

Soldiers may be charged somewhere between $10,000 to $50,000 for a service dog in some places. Warriors’ Best Friend has some large corporate sponsors like Ford Motor Co., JE Dunn Construction, the Kansas City Royals and the animal health company Boehringer Ingelheim based in St. Joseph. What the 501(c)(3) doesn’t bring in through corporate finance and donations, founder Joe Jeffers personally finances.