TAMPA, Fla. – Flags will fly. Cannons will fire. Fireworks will erupt.
The song “A Pirate’s Life for Me” will play over and over, unable to drown out the noise of nearly 66,000 screaming fans as the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (6-3) take on the New York Giants (3-6) on Monday Night Football at Raymond James Stadium (8:15 p.m. ET, ESPN).
If things go according to plan, Bucs wide receiver Chris Godwin will find the end zone and look up to see two Army veterans — Rebecca Stephens, 36, and Carlos Cruz, 46 — and their canine companions cheering in the stands, relishing a moment and a life they never thought possible if not for the generosity of Godwin’s family and others.
Stephens and Cruz are guests of the Team Godwin Foundation and recipients of service dogs from K9s For Warriors, a nonprofit that rescues dogs from high-kill shelters all across the Southeast, trains them and pairs them with veterans in need of mental, physical and emotional support.
Godwin and his wife, Mariah, and their Team Godwin Foundation have joined forces with the organization to sponsor a service dog for a veteran with the hope of saving not one, but two lives.
“I don’t think you can ever underestimate what giving someone hope can do,” Godwin said. “I think that dogs in general provide that, but service dogs — for whatever reason that someone may need it — just having that companionship, knowing that there’s gonna be someone that can understand you in some way … just gives you hope that the sun will come up the next day.”
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Like their humans, the dogs just need love and support to find their way again. They train for five to eight months in Ponte Vedra, Florida, and San Antonio, Texas, and then spend three weeks training with their veteran. The cost is $25,000-$30,000 per dog. Some dogs don’t make it through the program because they have the wrong temperament or hip dysplasia, but they are still adopted out to loving families.
“Veterans are a very unselfish group of people, just by nature. They’re putting their lives on the line to fight for the freedoms of all of us in this country,” Godwin said. “And a lot of times, I feel like all too often, when they return to the country they fought so hard to protect, it doesn’t necessarily treat them in the way they necessarily deserve, and that’s a sad thing.
“We respect them so much. It takes a special kind of person to put their lives on the line for other people, and there’s so many of them that don’t necessarily get the praise or the glory that they may deserve.”
The program is not covered by insurance, but the PAWS (Puppies Assisting Wounded Servicemembers) Act of 2021 was passed by Congress in August. Once signed by President Joe Biden, it will allow the Secretary of Veterans Affairs to make a $10 million grant to private entities for service dogs for eligible veterans dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder, allowing programs like K9s For Warriors to go from helping hundreds of veterans each year to thousands.
“The government has realized that this is real,” K9s For Warriors chief marketing and development officer Carl Cricco said.
“Here are these people who are so heroic and so brave, and it’s like, whatever we can do – if this is something we can do to bring some of them peace and some hope and some love and some companionship – I would love to be able to do that,” said Mariah, who started working with dogs as a volunteer at the Humane Society of Tampa Bay. “I know this service dog thing is expensive, and it’s a hard thing to have access to if you don’t have the means, but it’s also such an impactful thing.”
‘I kinda felt dead on the inside’
After she finished her tour of Iraq in 2011 when she was 26, Stephens struggled to assimilate into civilian life — a life that had carried on without her in the form of birthdays and holidays.
“I didn’t think I was worth much,” Stephens said.
Haunted by the trauma of living in an active war zone for a year and feeling disconnected from the world, she suffered from PTSD, which brought on mood swings, bouts of anger and nightmares. On top of that, she had physical pain for which she was given painkillers.
When those prescriptions ran out, she sought relief in street drugs — specifically heroin, which she said she used on and off for seven years.
“I kind of felt dead already on the inside,” said Stephens, who was kicked out of her home by her girlfriend in 2018 and moved back in with her parents in Clearwater, Florida. By then, she had been to rehab three times, stealing from the people she loved to support her addiction. She lived with paranoia, feeling like she couldn’t trust people.
“I remember sitting on my bed — it was my childhood bed — and I remember sitting there, just contemplating like, ‘Can I continue doing this, or is suicide an option?” Stephens said. “Suicide was this great idea, this great way for me to get out of the situation I was in.”
Then, in August 2018, a 68-pound yellow lab entered Stephens’ life. Bobbi wasn’t quite 2 yet, with a cream-colored coat and an affinity for swimming, knocking over orange traffic cones and most of all — approaching strangers.
Bobbi had previously been with another veteran, who had deemed she wasn’t a good fit.
“It took her a while to connect with me, which was really tough for me, because I just wanted her to love me immediately,” Stephens said. “But … I was straight out of rehab, so I feel like she could tell that I was hesitant, and therefore she was hesitant. … She was like, ‘OK, how long are you gonna last?’”
They started with basic commands and progressed to walks in the park, which is how they now start their day with her parents, which has helped strengthen their relationship.
They also go to the movies, the mall, the beach — and for the first time since she returned from Iraq, they’ll go watch her beloved Buccaneers on Monday.
Although Bobbi is active, she never takes her eyes off of Stephens.
“That hesitation I had was really the beginning of the strongest bond I’ve ever had with an animal in my entire life,” Stephens said. “She really made me work. Every little bit of affection that I got from her took a lot of work and was never taken for granted. … Where we are now is just this beautiful bond. I love this dog so much.”
‘She helps me face the fears’
Cruz, who lives in Daytona Beach, Florida, also struggled with PTSD after serving as a police officer in the Army for 20 years, including time in Afghanistan from July 2012 until July 2013. He worked with the SWAT team as a bomb dog handler and trainer, and supported Special Forces.
“When I was there, the whole time, we heard IEDs going off. We heard gunfire,” Cruz said. “A month prior to me coming back — May 28 — we got into a pretty big firefight. … It was over 80 minutes long, but it felt like a few minutes.”
He never wanted to come home with a combat action badge. He struggled to sleep at night. He was suffering from panic attacks and flashbacks. He was missing out on milestones with his wife, Marissa, and now-16-year-old daughter, Jordan.
He was given Hannah, a 2-year-old black Lab with giant paws and soulful brown eyes.
If they go to the movies, she’ll lie down behind him because he’s fearful of having his back to the door. She’ll sense if he’s suffering from a flashback or if he’s about to have a panic attack. She helps him stay present when he starts to tense up, sweat and feels the fight-or-flight response coming.
“She’ll distract me from whatever’s going on. She’ll lick me, she’ll lick my hands — she’ll try to figure out some way to get my attention,” Cruz said. “My wife has told me that she’s seen her a couple times at night laying on top of me when I’m sleeping.”
She’s with him when he goes to the gym, when he’s in crowds at Walmart or even at Disney World. A major breakthrough for him happened in March 2020, just before COVID-19 hit, when he and his wife went on a three-day cruise to the Bahamas. Hannah went with them.
“She helps me get back to some sort of normalcy,” Cruz said. “She helps me to face the fears.”
He acknowledged Monday night will still be difficult.
“I’ll try to enjoy it as best as I can, but at the same time, I can’t promise you I’m not gonna be looking around, watching my back every 20 seconds or every 30 seconds, seeing who’s coming up behind me, looking at people’s hands, making sure security did their job and nobody’s got a weapon on them,” Cruz said.
Where would he be if Hannah hadn’t come into the picture?
“In my house. With the curtains drawn,” Cruz said. “I would not leave. I’d be taking my pills and just existing. That’s it.”
‘It just shows the power of love’
According to the 2021 National Veteran Suicide Prevention annual report, in 2019, 17.2 veterans died by suicide a day (6,261 that year), while 1,068 shelter dogs in the U.S. are euthanized daily (390,000 per year), according to the nonprofit database Shelter Animals Count.
A study conducted by Purdue University examined salivary cortisol of veterans with service dogs and compared it to those still on the wait list. Cortisol is known as the body’s primary stress hormone. The study found veterans with service dogs had cortisol levels much closer to those of healthy adults without PTSD.
Many program participants have significantly reduced or gotten off medications. PAWS just paired its 700th dog with a service member, with 1,500 total dogs saved. It’s now building a mega-kennel so it can help more people and animals. The wait list currently extends to 2025.
“It increases our capacity by 150, and that will allow us to get the wait list down as quickly as possible,” Cricco said.
“At the end of the day, our goal is to end veteran suicide. Whether that’s through our organization and these veterans getting a service dog, or hearing Becca and Carlos’ stories, and their bravery gives them the courage to seek help — that’s all we want. And dogs are always in the mix. We love our furry, four-legged friends.”
Stephens, now sober for three years and counting and serving as an advocate for K9s For Warriors, hopes other veterans not only give the program a chance but also give life another chance.
“The biggest failure in life is not trying to make the best of your life and your situation,” Stephens said. “I think for so long, veterans focus on bettering the lives of everybody around them, that it can be really tough to look inward and try to get to that place that would truly make them happy. What K9s For Warriors provides is a lot of the people, places and things that veterans who need help are looking for. It can’t hurt to at least to try to put yourself first for once.”
Mariah added, “It shows just the power of love. Because that is, at the end of the day, the main component of what a rescue dog or a support dog brings to your life — that love and that reason to keep going.”