After two stints in Iraq as a private contractor working with bomb-detection dogs, Brett Simon returned home to the States and was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder — commonly referred to as PTSD.
“I came back and my family started noticing that I was a lot different as far as how I interacted with people,” says Simon. “It took a while for anyone to put a finger on it because I was a really good actor. Like a lot of our veterans, I could get through the day. I’m a tough guy, don’t worry about me.”
Over the past five years, Simon has fused his expertise working with canines with his experience working in a combat zone to
help establish K9s For Warriors, a privately funded nonprofit organization based in Ponte Vedra Beach that provides service animals to injured veterans.
Currently, Simon is the Director of Canine Operations, a position he’s held since 2010.
“My mom approached me with an idea that came to be K9s For Warriors because of my history with dogs,” he says of the group’s founder, Shari Duval.
“And her research and talking to people and asking, ‘What’s the best route to help my son?’”
Born and raised in Cincinnati, Ohio, Simon spent nearly 17 years working as a police officer with a majority of the time devoted to Miami Township Police Department’s Canine Unit. He trained and handled dogs in narcotic detection and tracking and patrol techniques.
Upon his retirement in January 2005, Simon was hired as a civilian contractor through the Department of the Army. He was stationed with the Stryker Brigade in Mosul — a city of more than a million people, north of Baghdad — for nine months.
“At the time, that I’m aware of, we took the first 15 cross-trained dogs to Iraq,” Simon says. “They were cross-trained for tracking and explosives. So anybody that fired from a mortar site or someone fleeing from a patrol that was out, I would take a dog with me and try to locate those people.”
Working with canines and bonding with active-duty military men and women, Simon excelled in Iraq. But, upon returning to Ohio, he struggled. It was a good two years before he sought any kind of help for PTSD; when he finally did, it eventually included therapy and medication.
“I got myself back on track and in 2009, I got a call back to Iraq with an explosives dog, only,” he explains. “We searched vehicles that were coming onto the operating base, which was in southern Iraq near Babylon.”
This second stint overseas lasted eight months. When Simon again returned to America, he decided to move south and join his mom in Northeast Florida. Together, they founded K9s For Warriors in 2010.
“It took me a little while to be able to confront myself and just deal with the issues that were in front of me, but I did,” Simon says of suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms like anxiety and nightmares. “The diagnosis never goes away, but it’s obviously manageable to run a facility like K9s For Warriors.”
K9s For Warriors provides service dogs to veterans and active military members diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, traumatic brain injury (TBI) and/or military sexual trauma as a result of serving in post-9/11 combat situations.
“In my opinion, K9s For Warriors is a lifesaver for our veterans,” says Simon. “We lose 22 veterans a day to suicide from Vietnam [War] all the way forward to the conflict we’re in now — the Iraqi and Afghanistan campaigns. Losing 22 veterans a day is unacceptable.”
Simon says that in the 160-plus canine and military personnel teams that the organization has graduated, not one member has been lost to suicide.
“Here, we show veterans that there’s another avenue and that’s with a service animal,” he explains. “It gives them the responsibility of taking care of something again. It gives them the confidence to go out into public. They have someone to give them unconditional love and not judge them if they’re having a bad day. It brings back independence and dignity.”
Now married and father to an eight-year-old son, it took Simon a while to realize that he would also benefit from the companionship of a service dog.
“I was having a hard enough time taking care of myself, let alone another living being,” he says. “It’s funny, even after we opened K9s [For Warriors], I still didn’t think about getting a dog for another three or four months until I found the one that I wanted for myself.”
Reagan, a female Belgian Malinois named after President Ronald Reagan, found her home with Simon on Veterans Day 2011. She was a gift from a friend.
“One night, out of the blue, my wife looked over at me and said, ‘You’re a much nicer person now that you have your dog,’” Simon remembers. “She noticed that change in a matter of just two weeks of [my] bringing an animal back into my life.”
With his wife, his child and his companion Reagan by his side, Simon has found comfort in his role as Director of Canine Operations at K9s For Warriors. His responsibilities include nearly everything dog-related — from managing the training teams to matching up the right canine with the right veteran.
And he’s excelled.
The program, which utilizes 90 to 95 percent rescue and owner-surrendered breeds like golden retrievers, lab mixes and labradoodles, has placed pups all over, from Germany to Hawaii to Texas. Currently, the K9s matching program has a one-year waiting list.
“There might be something that spooks a veteran that wouldn’t even phase a civilian, like walking through an alleyway,” says Simon. “With a service animal by their side, their mental state is in a much better place. They have a commitment and unconditional love from a dog that helps them — because that’s what our military guys are about, helping each other out.”