MAHWAH, N.J. – Each day, about 20 military veterans throughout the United States lose their lives to suicide, according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. James Brereton almost became one of them, as he explained during a recent ceremony in Mahwah.
The Army and Marine veteran, who served seven tours overseas, credits his dog, Bernside, or Bernie for short, with saving him.
“If I didn’t have him, I wouldn’t have made it,” Brereton said during a ceremony at Stryker Orthopaedics’ Mahwah campus last week.
Stryker held the program to announce it was sponsoring its fifth service dog through K9s for Warriors. The nonprofit rescues and trains service dogs, then links them with veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder, traumatic brain injury or other trauma resulting from military service.
“We are really thrilled to be helping out with this organization,” said Bill Huffnagle, president of Stryker’s Joint Replacement Division. He presented Shari Duval, the organization’s founder, with a $20,000 donation to sponsor a dog.
Duval started K9s for Warriors after her son, Brett Simon, came back from Iraq physically “unscathed,” she said. “Then I looked in his eyes, he wasn’t there. He was gone … I thought, 'I got to save my kid.'”
Simon had been a K9 police officer, before joining the Army. Duval said she read up on service dogs and learned they had been used for veterans, but there wasn’t much data. She got a dog for her son to train, and it has helped him tremendously, she said.
The organization has placed over 250 dogs with veterans, Duval said.
“It gives them the confidence to go back out in society again with dignity and independence,” she said.
For Brereton, whose yellow Lab Bernie hasn’t left his side since the two were paired in August, the program truly changed his life.
Brereton was the sole survivor of an ambush, leaving him wounded and with PTSD. Returning to civilian life was challenging, and the weight of this trauma became almost unbearable.
“The moment I laid eyes on this dog, I knew I was going to make it,” he said as he stood on stage with Bernie.