COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. — Nearly a decade of military service, including back-to-back deployments spanning 32 months, had left Fort Carson Sgt. Justin Bryant mentally fatigued, physically broken and at times, without a will to live.
That all changed when he adopted 2-year-old Duke from the Paws for Life animal adoption center in Pueblo in April 2012.
Bryant's wife, Melissa, spotted Duke's picture on the shelter's website after the soldier told her he wanted a dog. But what he got was much more than just a pet.
"He rescued me," said Bryant. "I fell in love with this dog the minute I laid eyes on him."
Duke, he said, seemed to smile up at him when they met at the shelter. Despite their instant connection, Bryant said he no idea the caliber of dog he was adopting.
Duke, an Australian shepherd/Blue Heeler mix, quickly picked up on Bryant's troubles, and the two formed a deep bond. Bryant decided to train Duke to be a service dog, falling back on years of experience training horses. After eight months of training, Duke was eligible to become a fully certified service dog. Bryant said he passed the test with flying colors.
After two tours to Iraq - and one to Afghanistan where he served as a field artillery crew member - Bryant struggled to turn off what he called his "combat mode." He suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder, depression and anxiety, all of which have made it harder for him to socialize and reintegrate into civilian life. He was medically retired in December.
In addition, doctors told him his 27-year-old body resembled that of an infantryman with 20 years of wear and tear.
He suffers from arthritis in both knees and has two bulging disks in his lower back, injuries suffered from his deployments.
Beth Zimmerman, founder and executive director of Pets for Patriots, the organization that helped facilitate Duke's adoption, said most shelter dogs aren't built for service. But Duke had an aptitude for it.
"He seemed sort of ready to find his purpose. His purpose was to be Justin's service dog," she said.
The organization, which has assisted with more than 500 adoptions, aims to pair two populations that have complementary needs, she said. Bryant enrolled in the program, which works exclusively to support adoptions between veterans and shelter dogs, after he was referred by Paws for Life, where Duke was adopted.
"We've seen, in many cases, animals being very highly attuned to veterans, especially those with psychological trauma," Zimmerman said. "The life-saving potential on both sides is just incredible."
Veterans who adopt often become evangelists for animal-assisted therapy and Bryant - who would like to start a business training service dogs for military veterans - is no exception.
"Once they adopt the right pet, it sort of becomes their world," Zimmerman said. While every adoption story is unique, Zimmerman said, bonding through both visible and unseen wounds and then recovering and growing together is something that occurs in many of their adoptions. "Duke had a less-than-stellar start in life," she said. The dog's former owner went to prison, and Duke had no training, little socialization and was likely neglected, she said.
At first, Bryant said Duke would cower during mealtime. He chewed through crates. Nowadays, though, Duke, is well enough behaved to sit in church; he also can go with Bryant to visit his kids at school. Bryant, who is raising four children with his wife, says Duke is like a fifth kid.
Indeed, the dog is more than just a pet to Bryant; he's a reassuring presence, and there are few places Duke can't go in his hand-sewn, camo-colored service vest, which Bryant's wife made. A pocket from the soldier's overseas uniform is sewed on to it.
In the past year, the vest has allowed Duke to accompany Bryant to a Broncos game, to several concerts, and to Copper Mountain.
"Partners, teammates, battle buddies - there's so many words to describe it," Bryant said of the relationship.
On April 1, two years to the date when Duke was adopted, the pooch will be honored with the Pikes Peak Chapter of the Red Cross's Hometown Heroes animal award, and Bryant also will celebrate two years with his best friend - the shelter rescue dog that not only changed his life, but also saved it.
"I get to reach down and pet and love on him. He makes it all better," Bryant said. "He's got everything under control."