A number to remember

Organization pairs service dogs with veterans battling PTSD

By Emmalee Nordland, Special to the Tribune
Posted 6/17/21

Let these numbers sink in: 22 veterans a day take their own life. Add this up, and it’s approximately 8,000 a year.  

When a veteran comes home from service to his country, everything …

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A number to remember

Organization pairs service dogs with veterans battling PTSD


Let these numbers sink in: 22 veterans a day take their own life. Add this up, and it’s approximately 8,000 a year. 

When a veteran comes home from service to his country, everything has changed, because they themselves have changed.

“People are takers or givers,” says Todd Bray.

Service members are trained to sacrifice and give all they can. Some gave their all, their lives, to defend our country. Yet, tragically, many others return with strong feelings of uselessness, anger or sadness, even to the point of taking their own life. Adapting to home and the civilian world after what they witnessed leads many to the isolation spiral, as they back away from relationships while trying to cope with these emotions. According to Bray, a veteran who lives in Cody, despite the horrors of war, men are taught not to whine or look weak. They try to look tough, even as PTSD continually haunts them.

“One of the problems with veterans is that they are living with a hardened heart,” Bray adds. “It’s like someone cauterized my heart.”

Desperate for a way to cope, some even turn to alcohol and drugs, which produce suicidal thoughts. But, there is now hope.

“Northwest Battle Buddies [NWBB] is a nonprofit organization that gifts and pairs professionally trained service dogs to combat veterans with PTSD,” explains Deb Hoover, a puppy foster trainer for NWBB in Cody. “Each dog has their own personality, and so does the veteran,” she continues. To Hoover, her family’s involvement is important. As a Christian, she thinks of the special day when a veteran is introduced to a dog, and she prays for the man or woman in hopes that the dog gives them all they need to move forward in hope; perhaps one day, the dog will provide an opportunity for the veteran to grow closer to God.

“Even though you have to let the dog go at the end of its first year ... it will all be worth it,” Hoover said.

Hope has indeed arrived for Bray, through a Northwest Battle Buddy service dog with a fascinating, once-in-a-lifetime story. Cipher is a beautiful black English Lab with a sweet personality and a hard-working demeanor. He is always there for Bray, his owner and handler.

“Dogs won’t tell your secrets,” says Bray. “They are very therapeutic. Dogs offer unconditional love.”

Being a man of independence, Bray always dismissed the notion of ever having a service dog. However, as a veteran with PTSD, his family and others saw a need in his life that a devoted service dog could fill. Things started fitting together. 

In 2018, another local family, the Swaneys, were fostering Cipher, but the family would soon be welcoming the birth of their eighth child, so they were unable to continue fostering. Jona Vanata, the NWBB veterans liaison, asked Bray if he could foster Cipher for the remaining duration. The Bray family had just lost their family dog, Turbo, and after a family meeting, they agreed to foster.

Cipher was a beloved buddy for Bray during that time, and at the end of the year of fostering, he was especially sad to see Cipher go. So, another family meeting was put in place. His two daughters mentioned something that weighed heavily on his heart: “We could tell you were much happier and less angry when we had Cipher.”

Even Bray could not deny that he had a healthier wellbeing with his foster dog.

Vanata, whose husband has also been blessed by a NWBB, encouraged him to apply for the program. After much prayer and contemplation, Bray reluctantly decided to apply, still wondering if another veteran had a greater need than he.

In the fall of 2019, Bray traveled to Battleground, Washington, for a period of five weeks, where he soon would begin training with his service dog.

“They want to make sure the veterans have skin in the game,” says Bray.

Then, something amazing happened: When it was time for Bray to be introduced to his service dog, in came Cipher! Bray was at a loss for words. Things had come full circle. For the first time in the history of the NWBB program, a service dog would come back home with his foster parent. Cipher was now officially a member of the Bray family and was Todd’s loyal protector.

“His job is to monitor me,” Bray continues. “When I opened my heart to Cipher, I became more of a human being.”

Today, Cipher and Bray are inseparable.

“It’s a God thing,” Bray said. “I helped raise him, had to give him away, and yet, he came back to the home where he was raised, here in Cody, Wyoming.”

He adds, “I want to help anyway I can, to give the same thing to other vets.”

Bray encourages anyone with an interest in this magnificent program to find out more on their website, www.northwestbattlebuddies.org. Vanata is available to answer all questions concerning the program, and as Bray complimented, “Cody is blessed to have a lot of stellar trained dogs with her in our local area.” Vanata’s phone number is 360-558-2049.

Whether you know of a veteran who can benefit from this organization, be a foster family, donate or even just offer up prayer, this program can make an impact. Team Todd and Cipher: where 1 + 1 = 1. That’s a number to remember.