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A Veteran’s Best Friend

By Joe Lowe

Baity with SSD Rona K459 on the Tigris River during an OIF deployment in Iraq.
Baity with SSD Rona K459 on the Tigris River during an OIF deployment in Iraq. Photo by Matt Kinney

On a dark February morning in 2004, Christopher Baity was beginning work at Quantico Marine Base when the provost marshal, the base’s head of police, unexpectedly approached him. Baity, who was then working as a Marine Corps kennel master, took a breath as the purpose of the visit became clear; the provost marshal wanted to know if he would go to Iraq on a combat mission. Baity pondered the question briefly before making his decision. He would go.

The decision put him on a dangerous path. He went on to serve on five combat deployments in the Middle East, where, among other things, he used dogs to search for enemy bombs and other explosives. And when he returned home, he faced bouts of post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). But Baity has no regrets. The decision he made that winter morning led to what he believes is his true calling, Semper K9.

A Mission to Giving Back

Driven by a desire to give back to America’s post 9/11 veterans, Baity and his wife Amanda founded Semper K9 in 2014. The nonprofit seeks to heal the wounds of war by training service dogs to provide physical and emotional support to U.S. Armed Forces veterans and their families.

These dogs enrich and restore lives by assisting their owners with overcoming daily challenges. The nonprofit gives those veterans with physical impairments dogs who can assist them with three or more duties to improve their health and mobility. Others affected by PTSD or related mental health difficulties benefit from dogs that help them recover emotionally and remain calm throughout painful times.

Working with dogs comes easily to Baity. He grew up in a family who raised dogs professionally before beginning his career as a dog handler, which he has been doing for 15 years. He puts his knowledge to use on a rented property in eastern Prince William County, where he lives with Amanda and their four children.

rona-header
Baity, pictured with Rona, a German Shepherd, was recently awarded American Heroes Channel’s Red Bandanna Hero of the Year for his work with Semper K9.

Although most of his waking hours are spent managing the nonprofit, Baity also helps support his family by working as security consultant, advising government agencies and other organizations about integrating service dogs into the workplace.

“It’s very busy, but also very rewarding. I couldn’t ask for a better job or career,” said Baity, who is 35.

His efforts haven’t gone unnoticed. In September, he was awarded the Red Bandanna Award by the American Heroes Channel for being a “true champion of the veteran community.” The actions of Welles Remy Crowther, a civilian popularly known as “the man in the red bandanna,” who lost his life saving victims of the 9/11 World Trade Center attacks, inspired the award.

A Win-Win Situation

Semper K9’s first class of service dogs, which Baity trained intensively for nine months, graduated in July and were paired with wounded service members and their families, many living within or near Prince William County.

Russell Walters, a Marine Corps sergeant who served as a helicopter mechanic in Afghanistan and now suffers from PTSD, received a one-and-a-half-year-old dog named Buster. The silver lab has brought stability to the Woodbridge resident’s life by waking him from nightmares, reminding him to take medicine and calming him during panic attacks.

“Buster is just an all-around great dog,” Walters said. “He accompanies me to my medical appointments, and he is such a big part of my life. Without him, it wouldn’t be the same.”

The benefits are mutual. For unwanted or rescue dogs facing euthanasia, Semper K9 training can mean survival. And motivated by this fact, Semper K9 attempts to work with dogs from shelters with high kill rates as much as possible—a fact not lost on veterans.

“They [Semper K9] take animals that nobody wanted, and a lot of times our service members feel the same way,” explained George Lamb, a veteran who received help from Semper K9 to train his medical alert dog.

Semper K9’s volunteers call themselves ‘Team Semper K9’ and have grown from a handful in 2015 to over 40 in less than a year.
Semper K9’s volunteers call themselves ‘Team Semper K9’ and have grown from a handful in 2015 to over 40 in less than a year.

Local Connections

Despite the fact that training a service dog costs approximately $20,000, Semper K9 provides dogs without charge, ensuring that money does not halt recovery. Being so generous doesn’t make the nonprofit’s job easy, but it works with help from Prince William County residents.

“We have lots of support from the community,” said Amanda Baity, who co-founded Semper K9 and now serves as its director of operations. “Families, children, veterans—all kinds of people are making a difference.”

In addition to partnerships with 15 local businesses and organizations, the organization counts on the support of more than 40 volunteers. They support Semper K9’s mission in a variety of ways, some of them helping to train dogs.

Semper K9 has built a core team of seven co-workers who offer expertise in community relations and health care services among other services. Together, they plan to continue expanding Semper K9’s work.

“In the next three years, we want to begin training 20-25 dogs a year,” said Amanda, who also pointed out that growth was not their only goal. “The need is there, but we want to maintain the quality of our services.”

In the meantime, Semper K9 needs to find a new home. When the Baity’s one-year lease on their current property ends in August, they will be forced to relocate, but they are determined to keep Semper K9 in Prince William County, among those who have given it the most help. “We’re looking for a place where the owners are happy to support us and be a part of our mission,” Baity said.

How you can help

Semper K9 welcomes all support. You can provide Semper K9 with training materials and supplies by visiting their Amazon. com wish list by searching for Semper K9 Wish List. To get involved or contact Semper K9, visit semperk9.org.

Joe Lowe ([email protected]) lives with his wife and daughter in Gainesville. After working for many years with the National Park and Forest Services, he is now employed with an environmental nonprofit in Washington, D.C.

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