CBS4 News is featuring a special series of reports this holiday season called the 12 Days of Christmas. The following story was written by CBS4’s Jeff Todd.
STRASBURG, Colo. (CBS4) – A Gold Star family from Colorado is trying to change the way some veterans treat their post-traumatic stress disorder, and they’re doing it the only way their fallen son would have wanted.
Cpl. David Sonka was killed on May 4, 2013, when he, his military working dog Flex and a fellow Marine were shot and killed by an Afghan soldier they were working with.
Sonka’s father knew he wanted to dedicate his life to honoring his son and Flex.
“Immediately I knew I was going to do something. I didn’t know what, I didn’t know how,” said Kevin Sonka.
A late night epiphany hit him. “I said ‘Dawgs Project, let’s take it nationwide.’”
The Dawgs project was started by a Vietnam veteran as a way to honor military dog handlers. Sonka started the Rocky Mountain Dawgs Project in July 2013.
“We originally started out hosting steak dinner events nationwide for our dog handlers in the military and their families and kids,” Sonka said. “At every event we read the names of those fallen along with their dogs.”
At one of the events this past summer Kevin befriended a veteran who was noticeably struggling with PTSD.
“I just thought, ‘How can we help this?’ We’ve got what, 22 of these guys killing themselves every day,” he said.
Sonka started looking into helping vets get service dogs to treat PTSD. But most programs require a vet to raise upwards of $10,000 and then wait for a dog to be trained.
“I think it’s the first of its kind the way that we’re training. Because the veteran is actually training his own dog, ” Sonka said.
For the past few months Sonka has been looking for a trainer willing to work with veterans. Many said they wouldn’t, but one trainer in Alabama agreed to his philosophy.
“My idea is to have the trainer train over the internet,” he said.
The idea centers around the veteran getting the necessary skills to train multiple dogs.
“They’re going to have more than one dog I would assume,” Sonka said.
Two German shorthaired pointers were donated. So far the results are already fruitful.
“I think the dogs are about six months old now, and the dogs are doing great. They’re easily being trained. Their dogs are actually sensing when the veteran is having his issues even before the veteran knows he’s having issues. The dog will come up and rub up against him and love on him and let him know everything is OK,” he said.
The problem is Sonka hasn’t yet raised the $50,000 necessary to train the two dogs.
“There are no words to express how proud I am to hear what these guys are doing. You cannot put a price on that,” he said.
Jeff Todd joined the CBS4 team in 2011 covering the Western Slope in the Mountain Newsroom. Since 2015 he’s been working across the Front Range in the Denver Headquarters. Follow him on Twitter @CBS4Jeff.