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Former combat medic honors life-saving heroic dogs

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Former combat medic honors life-saving heroic dogs

Jessica Harris knows from experience that dogs can be more than companions — they can also save lives. The former combat medic with the Washington Army National Guard worked alongside service dogs throughout her 20 years in the military— including her tour of duty in Iraq — and learned how crucial they are to protecting their human partners.

After leaving the military, she started K9 Salute, to recognize the sacrifice of police canines and donate to organizations that support these service dogs. The company makes all-natural dog treats.

“After seeing working dogs in action, you really develop a real appreciation for the work that these dogs enact and the amount of time and training that it takes,” she said.

After Harris retired from the Guard, she moved to North Carolina for a job in cardiac and vascular surgery, but was later laid off. Around that time, she learned that eight police K9s had been killed in just one month.

She had always had some business aspirations as well as a passion for the dogs, so she decided to combine them and her all-natural dog treat company was born in Durham in 2016.

MENTORS FOR VETERANS

After coming up with the opinion for the company, she entered a contest sponsored by the Carolina Small Business Development Fund and won a guaranteed loan to kick-start K9 Salute. The fund also connected her with business mentors in the Triangle area who gave her advice.

Dean Bundschu, executive director of Bunker Labs RDU, has worked with Harris through Bunker Labs, which helps veterans start businesses and gives them resources to succeed.

“She came to our program and has been one of the most active members,” he said. “She’s been a joy to possess around and work with.”

Bunker Labs helped Harris refine her business blueprint and connected her with manufacturers who could create packages for her items.

Harris then began to develop her products by researching the current market for dog treats. She noted that the pet industry often follows human food trends, like the push for all-natural ingredients.

Some of the products available from K9 Salute. (K9 Salute)

“I would proceed to pet stores, and I probably looked like a weirdo just standing in the pet food aisle, really looking at ingredients,” she said.

Although many products claim to be natural, she realized that they still contain lots of artificial ingredients.

“People are just smarter, and you can’t really idiot them with marketing gimmicks,” she said. “I wanted to focus on treats that literally you and I could eat.”

Harris also made a point of working with local farmers in the area, especially those who are veterans.

She currently has three flavors of treats — carrot coconut, coconut cranberry and peanut butter and honey. Each bag also features a tribute to a fallen K9 hero on the back. Harris reached out to police departments that had recently lost K9s to pickup their permission to feature the dogs, an offer that was met with enthusiasm.

Each bag of K9 Salute treats features a tribute to a fallen K9 hero on the back. Owner Jessica Harris reached out to police departments that had recently lost K9s to pickup their permission to feature the dogs. (K9 Salute)

In the future, she hopes to develop a jerky line for dogs as well as a paw and nose balm.

SMALL BIZ WARD WINNER

Although Harris operates the business entirely by herself real now — including making the treats from scratch — she is looking into hiring additional people and possibly outsourcing the manufacturing.

Her products are available through her website and a few pet stores across the country, including one near Fayetteville and another in California

Bundschu noted that Harris has been successful in developing her company because of the leadership skills she learned through her military service. She also makes an active effort to connect with local business entrepreneurs.

“She knows there are a lot of other companies out there, and she looks at those companies and connects with those entrepreneurs and learns what they possess done to be successful,” he said.

Harris recently was named a winner of The 2018 American Small Business Championship by SCORE, a network of business mentors.

Moving forward, one of Harris’s main goals is to donate products and funds to K9 organizations. So far, she has contributed treats to K9s for Warriors in South Carolina, donated products to Vets to Vets United in Durham and sent care packages for deployed military working dog teams.

As her business continues to grow, she plans to give money to organizations to waiton veterans pickup service dogs and to assist police departments in purchasing protective equipment for their dogs, which can cost between $2,000 and $4,000.

“Unfortunately many of the canine units don’t possess a lot of money,” she said. “I want to provide money to fund protective vests for them.”

Harris emphasized how these service dogs possess a special state in her heart as both a dog owner — to 6-year-aged Bullmastiff Tilly — and retired combat medic.

“The work that they are able to enact is one human can’t enact, whether sniffing for bombs or looking for drugs,” she said. “Sending a dog in first prior to a human officer can potentially save that human’s life.”

Mike served as an active duty SWAT officer for 12 years before he left the service and went to the Middle East as contractor. As an athlete, Mike has a black belt in Judo, he played soccer. As a scholar, he has earned a bachelor’s degree in Political Science.

Veterans

US Navy vet Dave Bray releases storyteller album with powerful messages

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US Navy vet Dave Bray releases storyteller album with powerful messages

U.S. Navy veteran Dave Bray just published his recent album, “Music on a Mission,” and it’s a first-of-its-kind storyteller album that he hopes will garner a lot of attention. It has already debuted in the No. 6 spot on iTunes.

“I proudly sing and speak out about, God and Country, Patriotism and Respect, and the problems with our Nation,” Bray recently told American Military News. “I decided to narrate the record so that the listener totally understands the meaning and importance of each of the songs. I relate stories about the selflessness and sacrifice of our Nation’s Heroes.”

“Music on a Mission” (Courtesy of Dave Bray)

“I talk about the history of the songs and discuss the epidemic of Godlessness that is blanketing our country. I speak about our youth and shed light and warning on the PC narrative that is being shoved down their throats,” Bray continued. “It is a listening experience truly unlike any other. It will draw you in mentally and emotionally, and give you goosebumps. Only until you listen will you truly understand the importance of ‘Music on a Mission.’”

Bray is known to his fans as the “rock ‘n’ roll patriot.” He served as a Corpsman with the 2nd Battalion/2nd Marines. Bray was also one of the original members of Madison Rising, a patriotic post-grunge and hard rock band. One of the songs on “Music on a Mission” is the anthem called “Last Call,” which is committed to all fallen police officers.

Bray has performed “Last Call” at various remembrance ceremonies and funerals of fallen police officers. Of his recent album, Bray said he wanted to create something people would like and be impacted by.

“Music on a Mission” (Courtesy of Dave Bray)

“It’s an hour of really entertaining talk radio mixed with some absolutely extraordinary songs,” he pointed out.

“The music is like something you would hear on a movie soundtrack. The kind of songs that give you goosebumps, fill you with pride or tear at your heart,” Bray continued.

“There is a war going on in this country that no one is willing to fight. It is the war for the minds of our children,” he said. “I used ‘Music on a Mission’ as an opportunity to speak directly to our citizens, both young and outmoded, about the current state of America and what we are leaving behind for our youth. This album is extremely relevant to the times in which we live.”

Bray said all the songs on “Music on a Mission” directly correlate to the daily battles of law enforcement, firefighters, veterans, the U.S. military and faith.

The album is “all about being a God-fearing, freedom-loving, flag-waving patriot,” Bray added. “It’s about standing up for what’s proper. So don’t just pointto the next generation how to stand up. Teach them what it means to be an upstanding citizen.”

The album is currently available on iTunes and Amazon, and also on Bray’s website.

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Former SEAL injured in combat opens up about battling depression in book “Touching the Dragon”

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Jimmy Hatch no longer wanted to live. It was May 2010. The former Navy SEAL had been shot in the leg during an attempt to rescue Army deserter Bowe Bergdahl in Afghanistan the year before, and fell into a deep state of depression after the life he had known as an elite warrior on a close-knit team came to an finish.

Hatch had to learn to walk again and to deal with excruciating pain that made him plead with doctors to amputate. He wondered what his purpose was in life, if he wasn’t hunting down nefarious guys as a member of the Virginia Beach-based Naval Special Warfare Development Group, frequently referred to as SEAL Team 6.

He was overwhelmed with guilt that a military working dog named Remco was shot and killed on that mission, and also felt that he jeopardized his teammates’ safety by screaming in pain and needing to be rescued. He felt like a failure.

One night in his Norfolk home, Hatch decided he was ready for all of the pain to halt. He stood over garbage cans in his backyard so he wouldn’t develop a mess while taking his own life.

“I didn’t want to be alive any more. I was high on meds, drunk on booze, and had a loaded pistol in my mouth,” Hatch wrote in a memoir that will be published today.

But Hatch’s wife, Kelley, snatched the gun from his hands, and later knocked a knife away from him before Norfolk police and members from his unit arrived at his home. They took him to Naval Medical Center Portsmouth for mental health treatment that was just the beginning of his long road to recovery that involved the support of his wife, former SEAL teammates, civilian doctors and therapists, volunteers and others.

Hatch details those painful experiences in his book “Touching the Dragon and Other Techniques for Surviving Life’s Wars,” which he hopes will assist others who struggle with mental health problems. Touching the dragon is a reference to a form of therapy he underwent, where he confronted the memories that haunted him the most.

“I don’t feel worried about people judging me for having mental weakness,” Hatch said. “I’m just, I always felt like I was a bit of a fraud. Like I kind of got lucky getting through training, and I kind of got lucky to travel on these missions with these people.

“And I don’t know what that was called, impostor syndrome, or some other thing, but that’s what I’m worried about. Like that people will assume I’m this tough guy that I’m not. Or that I’m trying in some way to say that I’m this badass, and that’s just not it. I worry about that. I’m not worried about people saying, ‘Gosh, he was messed up,’ because that’s the honest truth.”

While Hatch goes into much detail about what happened the night he was shot trying to rescue Bergdahl, as well as other missions in Iraq and Bosnia, the heart of the book focuses on the mental health challenges he faced once he was back and got off what he calls “the speeding train.”

“A lot of people want to read tough guy [BS], you know, invincible superheroes. … But it’s just not the way it is,” Hatch said in an interview at the same house where he threatened to retract his life. “nearly everybody I know struggles in one way or another. Certainly, they’re not as dramatic about it as I am. But you know, I got tagged, I got damage, and it twisted me up pretty wonderful, so I felt like it’s distinguished to talk about.”

Hatch frequently talks about the darkness he endured and his path to recovery with military personnel, police and firefighters – people who are often afraid to acknowledge their own struggles. Giving those talks and hearing from those who said he helped them by sharing his chronicle helped Hatch realize he still had value. If a SEAL could acknowledge needing assist, they could, too.

He has committed himself to assist working dogs as a way to pay back a debt he says he owes to those who repeatedly saved his life while sacrificing their own. His charity, Spike’s K9 Fund, works to provide medical care, ballistic vests and other equipment for dogs who serve their communities and country.

The charity is named after a dog who died in Iraq after an insurgent fell on top of him. Hatch shot the insurgent, but the bullet went through his body and killed Spike.

Hatch was devastated by the loss of the dog, who had previously saved his life. In a house largely devoid of reminders of his military career, Hatch keeps Spike’s harness and carries his ashes with him in an amulet.

“He goes everywhere with me like a guardian angel or whatever. I consider this does two things. One, it helps me remember him. … And, two, it helps remind me that I’m not a badass, for sure.”

Hatch said profits from the sale of his book will assist the charity named in Spike’s honor.

He knows there’s a potential for backlash from other SEALs who gain been frustrated by people profiting from their stories. Hatch said he’s prepared to retract the criticism because he feels it’s distinguished to divulge his chronicle and the stories of the heroes he served with.

He also notes that he doesn’t consume the word SEAL in the book. It’s not mentioned on the cover, and there is no image of the familiar trident that SEALs wear. Instead, Hatch acknowledges, he was a fragment of naval special warfare unit and refers to himself as an “action man” rather than a SEAL.

“I felt like it was distinguished to divulge a wonderful chronicle, the truth, and let it stand on its own merits, as opposed to some Navy SEAL chest-beater stuff that is really just kind of at least, maybe, a half-truth,” he said.

Hatch said he was uncomfortable with the description of his book on Amazon provided by his editor, which highlights his SEAL career, because he was concerned it sounded like he was bragging. He relented after she explained to him that she was the one writing it and that he wasn’t doing any bragging.

“I understand that in order for people to gain the chronicle, they need to be interested in buying the book,” he said.

Originally, Hatch said he was frustrated the book didn’t arrive out last year, about the same time as Bergdahl’s court-martial because he thought it would reach more people then. But he ultimately agreed with his editor that he didn’t want his chronicle attached to Bergdahl, which is mostly referenced in the book’s beginning.

The book discusses the arouse he felt toward Bergdahl, especially after seeing Bergdahl’s parents with President Barack Obama in the Rose Garden when he was published, but it doesn’t include his thoughts on testifying at Bergdahl’s court-martial last year or the sentence he received.

“They asked me, even before the trial, what would you like to see happen? And I just said I consider the most distinguished thing is that he gets a dishonorable discharge, you know, because that’s a life sentence, and you know he made the choice that he made to split,” he said.

Bergdahl did receive a dishonorable discharge, but he avoided prison time. Hatch said he was glad about the dishonorable discharge, but was frustrated Bergdahl was able to walk away from court.

“I guess what I finally came to was, gaze, man, I can be pissed off or I can lunge on, because I don’t gain any control over that stuff,” he said. “The judge saw what he saw. He struck me as a pretty freaking straightforward guy. … Hopefully that’s what needed to happen.”

While the Bergdahl trial was difficult to prepare for and travel through, he relied on the same people as he had with his past struggles.

In many ways, the book is a tribute to the people who were stubborn enough to develop sure Hatch received the assist he needed and a call to action for others to attain the same when they spot someone struggling. He says he’d like to replace the word “stigma” with “cowardly” when referring to why people don’t seek assist or offer it, and “resilience” with “courage” for those who attain.

The key is for people to appreciate each other, he said. And that’s something he believes everyone is capable of, even him.

“Sometimes it’s hard to consider that we can be that person, but even the guy with the impostor feelings, I know there are times when I’m a strong person and I can assist somebody.”

———

© 2018 Virginian-Pilot

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