A medically-retired combat veteran who had difficulty readjusting to civilian life is making a big difference in the lives of other Laramie veterans with a new service dog training program.

Bryce Bennett is a retired U.S. Marine Corps gunnery sergeant and one of the founding members of 22tozerok9rescues.org, a website dedicated to fighting PTSD among veterans by matching rescued dogs with veterans.

“I lost a bunch of friends overseas, but it just seems that I’ve been losing more and more each year to suicide,” says Bennett.

Bennett started a closed Facebook group called Laramie Veterans 24/7 to give local veterans –about 700 in Laramie, according to Bennett – a place to go for camaraderie and support. New members join each week.

“It’s been a growing epidemic within the veteran community that twenty-two veterans kill themselves every day,” says Bennett. “Honestly, I’ve been down that dark road myself, and it wasn’t until I started interacting with animals – and specifically, dogs – to where it opened me up to be willing to talk about what I saw overseas, what I experienced, what the loss felt like.”

Bennett says his dog Gunner would get distracted easily in crowds, so he and his wife took Gunner in for some training. After the class, the trainer Myra Edwards approached Bennett and his wife to ask if they knew of any other veterans that might benefit from free service dog training.

Bennett found a lot of interest in free training among the Facebook group. Edwards and her mother volunteered their time and the Laramie VFW lets the class use the banquet hall for free. Edwards and her mother teach the class on a volunteer basis.

Bennett has partnered with Bounce, a Fort Collins animal rescue, which runs a program called Rescues Rescuing Veterans.  The program helps veterans who have service-connected disabilities by pairing them with exclusively rescued dogs at the recommendation of each veteran’s mental health professional.

For every $100 donated to Bounce, the shelter can afford to give another service animal to a veteran.

In addition, Walkabout Kennels wants to donate a female therapy dog to a veteran in Bennett’s group.

Bennett says 13 veterans and their dogs are in the class currently, with another two veterans waiting to be paired with a dog through the Rescues Rescuing Veterans program.

Veterans interested in the program can reach out to Bennett through 22tozerok9rescues.com or the Laramie Veterans 24/7 Facebook group. Classes are scheduled for the next five Thursdays at 6 p.m. in the Laramie VFW ballroom.