Brandon is an Iraq war veteran with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) who in 2016 adopted a dog named Skyy. While Brandon thought he was bringing home a dog, the veteran soon learned that companion pets are so much more – they are family.
A life-changing decision
South Florida was home to Brandon during many of his formative years. Like many teenagers, he did not know what he wanted to do after high school.
Brandon’s family relocated from Florida and it turned out to be a pivotal event in the young man’s life when an inspiring conversation with a Marine Corps recruiter changed his world.
“For a year of my life, when I was a senior, my family moved to Mississippi. There were lots of guys there that were part of the military,” he recalls. “A recruiter talked to my class. He asked me what I was doing with my life. I told him, ‘I don’t even know what I’m doing tomorrow.’”
At 17 Brandon decided to join the United States Marine Corps Reserve (USMCR).
“I was unlike other young guys ready to join the military. I didn’t even know what the Marines were. Didn’t even know it existed,” he admits.
For his part, the young teen was open to the opportunity.
“The recruiter was a good guy,” Brandon adds. “He never lied to me. He saw I was a young man with no direction, but who had potential. It was a good thing to happen. I don’t know what I would have done.”
Learning to jump – and to lead
Brandon scored well on the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery test, or ASVAB. In 2003, he attended boot camp in Parris Island, South Carolina. He was stationed in Bessemer, Alabama, as part of the 4/14 – 4th Battalion, 14th Marine Regiment – and later served with the 4th Air Naval Gunfire Liaison Company, or ANGLICO.
As a Scout Forward Observer Brandon’s primary responsibility was calling for artillery and determining where it should land.
Part of the young Marine’s training included time at the Army’s Airborne School in Fort Benning, Georgia. Also known as Jump School, it provides basic paratrooper training for all branches of the United States armed forces.
“It was cool, but scary,” he says of the experience. “And probably stupid looking back on it.”
Brandon learned two types of sky dives while at Fort Benning: jumping from about 14,000 feet with a free fall of 52 seconds before parachute deployment, and the much riskier low level static line jump.
“Jump from 1,100 feet,” Brandon explains of the low level jumps. “A yellow line hooked to a plane pulls you and deploys the parachute for you. Count to six seconds, and if you don’t feel the shock of your parachute opening, pull your reserve. That’s the technical definition, but you really only have about three seconds from when you jump to correct a mistake. It was dangerous.”
From young recruit to Iraq war veteran
Brandon served in the USMCR from 2003-2011, a time which included deployment to Iraq. In 2014, he received an honorable discharge with the rank of first lieutenant after sustaining a severe ankle injury in a jump.
While learning how to jump out of an airplane was certainly memorable, Brandon points to leadership experience as the biggest takeaway from his time in service.
“Leadership development was second to none,” he says. “It was amazing. The ability to endure austere environments was incredibly helpful. I met influential guys I would have been hard-pressed to meet anywhere else. I’ll never forget them. I got tougher physically and mentally.”
Brandon has been able to apply much of his leadership training to his civilian life and credits the Marines with his confidence as a leader.
After leaving the military Brandon owned a landscape design and installation company in Florida. Once settled, he decided to bring a dog into his life. The Iraq war veteran knew he wanted to adopt.
“At the time, I felt it was unnecessary to pay for an animal when you can help a shelter animal out, sitting in a kennel all day.”
Brandon found Skyy – a then two year-old Rhodesian Ridgeback mix.
Skyy was in the care of Big Dog Ranch Rescue in Loxahatchee, Florida. Since 2012 and through our partnership, the organization has offered veterans deeply discounted adoption fees when they save program-eligible dogs.
For her part, Skyy had been surrendered because she was “too high energy” for her previous guardian.
Brandon had wanted a friendly, younger, energetic dog, so Skyy caught his attention right away. After seeing her interact with his one year-old daughter he knew she was a perfect fit. But Brandon realized that she would benefit from training – just like nearly every adopted dog.
“It had been 15 years since I had a dog,” the Iraq war veteran says. “I was reminded real quick that she needed training. Her quality of life and mine dramatically went up when I trained her. She went from a wacko dog with high energy to a dog with high energy who listens.”
Setting aside time to train a new companion animal is critical to an enduring adoption. New pet parents must understand that there is an adjustment period with any new dog or cat.
One key to a successful adoption is preparing the home and family for pets prior to their arrival.
Finding peace in Idaho
As the years passed Brandon discovered that the sunshine state was not fulfilling his more spiritual needs.
“Coming out of the military, you’re thinking a certain way and getting in an environment that keeps stress high doesn’t help,” he says. “I wanted to be a better father and husband, and get back to things I truly value.”
In mid-2017, Brandon left city life for good and moved to a quiet mountain town in Idaho. His brother lives in the area so the choice of locale was not a random one.
“Nature is where you can be in tune with faith,” he explains. “With this much time, needing to hustle and bustle is slower and my time spent with family is dramatically increased. We can do whatever we want to do because here in Idaho we need less money to survive.”
The slow pace of life and natural beauty of his new home gave the Iraq war veteran an inner sense of calm that he did not feel while living in Florida.
“We never had a spiritual family in Florida,” he says. “I wish I came here 10 years ago.”
Since moving to Idaho Brandon has been spending time volunteering with a faith-based ministry health retreat. Through the organization he helps people with physical ailments and puts the leadership skills he honed in the Marines to use.
Skyy has adjusted well to the move to Idaho. She loves being able to spend more time outdoors and accompany Brandon when he goes to new places. She even has her very own jacket to help her stay warm in the colder weather.
“In Idaho, she can be a dog to the max,” Brandon says.
From dog to second child
The Veterans Administration estimates that as many as 20 percent of Iraq war veterans have PTSD in any given year. In 2015, Brandon was diagnosed with PTSD, and found Skyy’s unwavering loyalty a source of comfort during his darker moments.
“I cope with it with exercise, spirituality, and having the dog,” he says. “If you’re having a challenging day, look at a dog, and a dog never has a bad day.”
In addition to exploring Brandon’s 160-acre property, the pair do a lot of driving as well. The Iraq war veteran recently bought a four-door pickup truck to accommodate his 75-pound companion.
But it was a change in perspective that made all the difference in not only the Marine’s life, but of Skyy’s as well.
“I need to give credit where credit is due,” Brandon says. “My wife helped me view the dog as a second child, not just a dog. That catapulted my relationship with my dog. I took the time to train her, to spend time with her, love her, care for her, give her the attention she desired. Now I understand her better.”
This realization has helped the Iraq war veteran shape his once unruly four-legged child into a well-mannered family member. The process – and the results – have helped Brandon cope with his PTSD.
“Put the time in with the dog and it will make a difference in your life. They will become like another child. I empathize with Skyy a lot more,” he says. “I’m grateful.”