Marine Corps veteran Nate Walker was unable to sit through a major league baseball game for years after he returned from Afghanistan.
Haunted by the time he spent clearing explosives along military routes, he worried what others at the game might have hidden inside their bags or under their sweatshirts.
That changed when he got his service dog, Yazhi, who accompanied him to Coors Field in May to see the Colorado Rockies play the Los Angeles Dodgers.
"I haven't been to a stadium with that many people since I've been home," the 26-year-old Denver resident said. "It felt like I was starting to get my life back. I wasn't limited in what I could go do."
Walker is one of many veterans who, with the help of a disciplined four-legged companion, have regained some of the independence they lost due to physical or mental ailments caused by their time in service. But service dogs are not an option for all veterans; some don't have the money to pay for training programs, which can cost up to $30,000.
On Wednesday night, a local organization will hold a fundraiser to help offset training costs for veterans who wouldn't otherwise be able to afford the animals. The American Warrior Initiative, the nonprofit arm of Colorado Springs-based Fairway Independent Mortgage Corporation, will host a gala and auction at The Antlers hotel, with auction proceeds and donations going to local trainer David Proctor.
Proctor has provided training for more than 60 dog-handler duos, including Walker and his Czech German shepherd. His approach differs from other instructors who train the animals independently and return them to their handlers.
"You're training the dog, and he's teaching you how to train the dog. The best part is the bond," Walker said. "It gives you another part of that warrior culture that you lost."
Without the overhead costs of a training facility and a staff of professional trainers and veterinarians, Proctor keeps his rates relatively low, offering training for $7,000 to $13,000. He requires veterans bring their dogs to public places the owners might otherwise shy away from, such as malls and restaurants, to work with him one-on-one.
The former soldier started his business, Guardian Service Dogs, after finding comfort in a trained companion of his own when he returned from Iraq, where he spent 18 months patrolling urban areas for explosives, weapon caches and other terrorist activity.
"Once I had seen how much of a difference it made for me, I decided that's what I needed to do - make sure it was accessible for other people," Proctor said of his service dog.
With a series of courses that typically take place over 14 months, Proctor guides his clients and their animals through increasingly difficult phases: remedying standard puppy problems like barking and chewing; teaching dogs basic commands, such as "sit" and "stay;" ensuring the canines are desensitized to unique environments, from airplanes to the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo; and teaching the animals a range of highly-specialized tasks, which can include sensing adrenaline or blood pressure levels, detecting explosives, checking homes for intruders and retrieving items.
Navy veteran Nicole Bretag, who graduated from Proctor's program last year with her blue heeler Rosie, said having a service dog has had a major difference in her day-to-day life, from driving to navigating crowds.
Bretag, who was twice deployed to the Middle East, suffers from post-traumatic stress that triggers anxiety attacks so intense their onset can cause her to lose consciousness. Rosie will alert her when one is coming with a tug on the leash or a tap on the leg.
"She keeps me focused and calm," said Bretag, 30, who lives in Florissant. "I'm able to go grocery shopping now without bringing my husband with me. I'm not reliant on everyone else to take care of me and drive me around. It's nice."
Tickets for Wednesday's event cost $75 and are available at galacosprings.eventbrite.com. Festivities begin at 5:30 p.m. Dinner will be served at 6:30 p.m.
To make a cash donation or donate an item for the auction, call Ruth Vogt at 592-0855 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Contact Rachel Riley: 636-0108