PONTE VEDRA, Fla. -- Randy and Louie are a remarkable team. In fact, the two are tethered together with a special over-the-shoulder, no-hands leash almost all the time.
Randy says, "I was lucky enough to get him."
He knows that his certified service dog, Louie, is bringing him out of the torture of PTSD and back into a world of employment, and even marriage. Randy is looking forward to his wedding in June.
Randy served 26 and 1/2 half years in active duty and in the guard. He says it was "family tradition," his father, grandfather and great-grandfather serving before him.
But his service, as is the case for many veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan, threw him onto a horrifying path of PTSD.
"I had issues," Randy says. He isn't comfortable talking about what he remembers all too well from his days as a combat engineer, but he will say he spent an unusual amount of time back home in his bed. "I was a mess."
He withdrew. He didn't want to be around people. He says if there were "more than three cars" on the road, he would get anxious.
Randy speaks now with dignity and compassion for fellow veterans. But he admits that before he was paired with Louie, he wouldn't have come close to sitting down for an interview.
Louie and Randy graduated last May from K9s for Warriors, a non-profit group in Ponte Vedra which has helped more than 110 veterans from 23 states. Shari Duval founded group when she experienced the help a dog could give her own son, who came back from overseas battling PTSD.
Randy says Louie can sense when he's getting anxious. If they're driving down the road, Louie will put his head on Randy's shoulder and lick his ear. Randy says he doesn't even realize he's experiencing a problem until Louie alerts him. Randy will pull over, calm down and a problem is avoided.
Louie is "a distraction" for Randy. He's only barked three times since Randy's had him now for about a year. That's a big help because, typical of warriors with PTSD, Randy doesn't like noise.
He says one time a neighbor tested a new gun he had bought.
"It made me think of things I don't like," Randy explains.
But Louis was right there nudging him. Randy was able to stop the stream of anxious thoughts, concentrate on Louie, and avoids a panic attack.
Randy says PTSD is like this: "Think about the worst day ever in your life and multiply it by 100 times."
That's why Randy is grateful for K9s for Warriors.
"Oh, this does work," he says. "These dogs do help. If it wasn't for him, I wouldn't be going anywhere."
Now, First Coast News is teaming up with K9s for Warriors and the Weaver Foundation to get the word out about the new opportunity for the non-profit program.
The current facility can only house four warriors to train with their dogs, 95 percent are rescue dogs. Now the Weavers are offering what could mean $1 million to help the group operate a new facility being built in Nocatee. It will house 16 warriors, increase professional trainers from three to 10, supply a covered training facility and offer comfortable basketball and recreation quarters for the warriors. The warriors live at the facility free for three weeks to train with their K9.
If you want to help Operation Orion, go to their website. The Weaver Foundation will match every dollar you give.
If you want to hold a fundraiser, Jeannie Blaylock is happy to help you get the word out. Just email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.