Sgt. Richard Brewer, 53, of Falmouth never wants a veteran to feel crazy or helpless because of post-traumatic stress disorder, the way he did.
Brewer founded the nonprofit One Warrior Won to help veterans transition back to civilian life. For years, that meant creating a support network, but one waggly puppy changed everything for Brewer, a decorated U.S. Marine sergeant.
"In 2009 I attempted suicide and obviously failed," Brewer said. "In 2010 I got a puppy and we formed a bond."
The English bulldog-black Lab mix, Anka, relieved a lot of Brewer's PTSD-related tension, anxiety and anger. She'd wake him up when he was having nightmares. He researched how to make her his service animal and found a lot of logistical hurdles. But to buy a service dog would cost more than $12,000 and the wait for a qualified dog could be two years or longer.
He trained Anka himself to become his service dog, allowing him to travel overnight. Before Anka, the stress of travel was overwhelming and he couldn't sleep in a new city, but with her, he was able to calm down when he got agitated. She also now acts as a buffer when Brewer is out in public, including acting as a distraction for him in needed moments.
"Dogs provide a ton of security and redirect focus. Instead of focusing on a man in a sweatshirt in the corner, you can focus on the dog. If the dog isn't alerted, I'm not alerted," Brewer said.
When Brewer realized the power a puppy could have over PTSD, he made that the focus of One Warrior Won: Training dogs to become service animals and connecting them to veterans in need of help.
SERVED from 1980 to 1987 in the U.S. Marines; achieved the rank of sergeant.
BASED in Paris, France; Yugoslavia; Beirut, Lebanon; Nicosia, Cyprus.
RECEIVED Purple Heart, Navy Commendation Medal, Naval Achievement Medal, Armed Forces Expeditionary Medal, Good Conduct Medal.
So far, One Warrior Won has connected 50 dogs – all saved from kill shelters – with veterans. The veterans don't pay for the dogs, thanks to private donations.
"We can literally save a dog's life and in some instances, veterans' lives," Brewer said.
Some of One Warrior Won's trained dogs have gone to female veterans whose post-traumatic stress stem from sexual assault during their time in service.
"These women have a hard time with trust," Brewer said. "These dogs can give them something to trust in, but they're a barrier too. If you don't want to be close to someone, you can put the dog between you. It's a safety barrier."
Nancy Walsh, a petty officer second class in the Navy who lives in Roebuck, South Carolina, acquired her service dog, Ronnie, through One Warrior Won. She was diagnosed with PTSD stemming from sexual assault during six years of active service from 1986 to 1992, and her psychiatrist suggested she get a service animal to alleviate some of her anxiety and depression.
She tried to get a dog on her own, and ended up waiting four years. When she got in touch with One Warrior Won, she received a fully trained shiba inu-husky mix puppy months later.
"I was really paranoid to go into the grocery store. It really got bad. I went into Walmart one night before I got her and I just felt like men were following me around the store. It might not have been, but it seemed that way," said Walsh, 61. "But when I'm with the dog, no one bothers me and I feel much safer."
One Warrior Won operates nationally but is based in Portland with a three-person, volunteer staff. Donors sponsor the dogs, and the nonprofit finds a veteran in need of help in that donor's area. Some dogs have been sponsored by Maine philanthropists.
"One Warrior Won changed my life," Walsh said. "I'm so glad Rich does this. People need it bad."