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Story #18Brothers and Sisters in ArmsSlidell, LA

I don’t know where it comes from. It’s something I have to do. Maybe it’s something I have to repay for the things I feel I’ve done wrong.

It’s eight in the morning, and Brothers and Sisters in Arms is in a state of mild chaos. A small pack of dogs mill about alongside their human counterparts, leashes tangling as they exchange sniffed greetings. Founder Phil Ruddock stands at the center of the pack, holding it all together. If the whole operation feels a little rough around the edges, it’s only fitting. Rescuing dogs and training them as service animals for military veterans isn’t always a neat and tidy business. The veterans they serve wouldn’t feel half as comfortable if it were.

The statistics are sobering, and Ruddock knows them by heart. “The suicide rate is 22 per day for veterans – that’s 8,000 a year.” Ruddock himself served in the Air Force for ten years, including a deployment as an Explosive Ordinance Disposal (EOD) specialist during Operation Desert Storm. EOD is among the highest risk positions the Air Force has to offer, and Ruddock returned home with both PTSD and a traumatic brain injury. On more than one occasion, he found himself on the verge of becoming one of those statistics.

Then he met Mia. Abandoned as a puppy, this Pit Bull was abused, undernourished, scared, and antisocial. Or, as Ruddock puts it, “just like me.” He started by taking Mia for car trips. She became his “battle buddy,” waking him up from a nightmare or watching his back when they went to the store. As Ruddock felt himself coming back to life, epiphany struck. If he could help even one of his brothers or sisters have the kind of experience he’d had with Mia, he’d have a reason to live.

Ruddock started by going to work for another service dog provider, but he was shocked by what everyone was charging – sometimes as much as $25,000 per dog. “These guys getting out of the military are just above the poverty level,” Ruddock points out. The numbers didn’t make sense to him.

So, Ruddock went out on his own and put all he had into building a nonprofit with a simple mission: train service dogs, and give them to veterans at no cost. To overcome the usual start-up costs and ongoing expenses of running a kennel, he had to get creative. Instead of breeding the dogs in-house, Brothers and Sisters in Arms adopts homeless rescues, otherwise destined for euthanasia. As Ruddock sees it, that’s more of a win-win than a compromise. “All our dogs are shelter dogs, so we’re saving them and saving people. Sounds like a good deal to me.”

Ruddock’s clients are involved in every step of the training, learning critical skills and developing an intimate relationship with their new service animal. That process is particularly powerful because all of Ruddock’s dog trainers are also veterans. “There’s no better therapy because you can talk, and you don’t have to explain. You don’t have to worry about us not understanding because we’ve been there one way or another.”

Business isn’t always easy for Ruddock, either emotionally or financially. Spending his days helping other people work through their demons sometimes makes it difficult to leave his own behind. His devotion to the cause also means that he spends every dollar coming in the door on new leashes, microchips, and vaccinations. Regardless, Ruddock is stubbornly practicing the ideal so many nonprofits strive for: the dollars they raise go to programs and services, rather than administrative costs and overhead.

Accounting for more than 5 percent of GDP and more than 10 percent of jobs, the nonprofit sector represents a surprisingly significant piece of the American economy. But Ruddock never gave those numbers much thought. “I have more dogs at home than I know what to do with, but I’m happy. It’s not about material things. It’s about that feeling you get, when you see the change that that dog made… Just keeping that one family together… that one veteran alive.”

Photos by Christina Clusiau

  • Phil Ruddock and his dedicated team of trainers at Brothers and Sisters in Arms.

  • Desert Storm veteran Phil Ruddock, the no-nonsense founder of nonprofit Brothers and Sisters in Arms.

  • When veterans first come to Brothers and Sisters in Arms, they are often still reeling from PTSD, traumatic brain injury, or simply the shock of returning to civilian life.

  • "It’s not about material things, it’s about that feeling when you get when you see the change that dog made.”

  • Unlike most programs, Brothers and Sisters in Arms puts their clients in charge of training their own service dog.

  • Families of veterans are welcome at Brothers and Sisters in Arms. Ruddock has found that service dogs often help his clients reconnect with their spouses and kids.

  • “All our dogs are shelter dogs, so we’re saving them and saving people. Sounds like a good deal to me.” Louisiana is not a no-kill state, and pit bulls like the ones Ruddock frequently adopts represent a disproportionately large percentage of the euthanized population.

  • “We’re making a difference. We’re affecting families. We’re affecting outcomes. One less person that killed themselves today. One less family that has got to mourn the loss of their son or daughter or sister or brother.”

  • Brothers and Sisters in Arms uses rescue dogs in order to keep overhead low. From day one, Ruddock committed his nonprofit to the mission of giving their service dogs to veterans free of charge.

  • Unlike many service dog providers, Brothers and Sisters in Arms does not breed its animals. Trainers work either with their client's family dog, or with a rescue animal.

  • Ruddock stands at the center of a group of veterans, one of his fellow dog trainers to his right. Each of the nonprofit’s trainers is a veteran.

  • Each of the nonprofit's clients is paired with a trainer, who guides the veteran through the training process. Watching the dog progress under their direction gives the veterans a sense of accomplishment and empowerment - feelings they may not have experienced since leaving the military.

  • The training process also gives clients time to spend focused, one-on-one time with other veterans. As Ruddock puts it, “There is no better therapy, because you can talk, and you don’t have to explain.”

  • Brothers and Sisters in Arms provides service dogs to military veterans at no cost. They train at a number of locations, all of them donated, in order to keep costs down.

Q & A

We spoke with Desert Storm veteran Phil Ruddock about Pit Bulls, nonprofits, and finding his way in the civilian world.

You say you were rescued by your dog, Mia. Can you talk a little bit about that?

When I got back from the military, people pretty much left me as far as aunts, uncles, cousins, people I was close to growing up… my friend Brenda brought me a Pit Bull that came from around the New Orleans area, and this dog was starving to death. She was young. She was under a year. She looked like she had been beaten and just worn down just like me… I would start taking her for a little ride – and each day was a little further – and I realized I was okay with going some places with her. Over the course of a couple years, I was taking her out of state to go rescue other dogs, and I realized that this dog pretty much saved me from killing myself – because I was at a dead end. I had other reason to live. I was done, and if it wasn’t for Mia… She made me realize there was something out there that I needed to do.

What inspires you?

Just keeping that one family together, that one veteran alive… Everybody over here is making a difference. It may not seem like much of a difference, but we’re making a difference. We’re affecting families. We’re affecting outcomes. It’s just one less person that killed themselves today; one less family that has to mourn the loss of their son or daughter or sister or brother.

Why do you think veterans are afraid to talk about their experiences?

They don’t want to relive it. Those demons in their head, they come back, and they stay for awhile. They bring on nightmares, they bring on panic attacks, anxiety, stress, anger; they make the sober start drinking. It’s why so many turn to drugs, so many can’t keep jobs. They don’t want to talk about it because people don’t want to listen, people don’t want to understand. Unless you have been in that situation, you will not understand… That’s one thing about our program: all our trainers are veterans. You get to spend one-on-one time with a veteran, and you get to talk to a veteran. There is no better therapy, because you can talk and you don’t have to explain. You don’t have to worry about us not understanding, because we’ve been there one way or another.

Your work seems incredibly demanding. What keeps you going?

Every time I do this, come up and train, or work with somebody or help somebody on the phone, I bring up everything that I’ve lived and it’s overwhelming, it really is… but as for finding the energy to do this, I don’t know where it comes from, but it’s something that I have to do. Maybe it’s just something I have to do to repay for the things I feel I’ve done wrong, I don’t know… I’ve talked at prisons for veteran groups. You sit there and talk with these gentlemen, and they’re in prison for things that I could have easily done. The only difference between them and me was a fine line, the width of a dog leash. That’s it. And that’s why transitioning these guys back out to the public is going to take a dog. It’s not money. It’s not fame and fortune. It’s just the love of mankind; it’s doing the right thing. It’s doing what’s supposed to be done. Taking care of family – veterans are family. Maybe the world’s screwed up, maybe I’m screwed up, but if we take care of each other a little more, maybe a lot less stuff would go wrong.

Business Details

Proprietor: Phil Ruddock
Slidell, LA
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