Mike Morrison knows the feeling all too well.
A feeling of dread. Of the world closing around him. Invisible walls close in on him.
His breath quickens and he can feel a panic attack coming on.
So can his service dog, Jud.
Whether it’s in a line at the grocery store, standing in a restaurant or in a crowded street – Jud is trained to safely and quickly make enough space for Morrison to feel safe again.
It’s part of living with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, caused by his service in the U.S. Army, but Morrison is thankful for Jud.
Now, he and Semper K9 are working with veterans to help alleviate their symptoms as well.
Morrison, director of public relations and outreach for Semper K9 – a non-profit based out of Manassas that helps connect veterans with service dogs – helped coordinate the inaugural Upland Game Hunt at Lakota Hunt Club Nov. 19.
“I thought the hunting community, probably 99 percent of them love veterans, so I thought why not do something like this,” Morrison said.
Nestled into the northern end of Culpeper County, the Lakota Hunt Club is part of Lakota Ranch, owned by the Engh family.
Started as a grass-fed beef cattle farm 35 years ago, the Lakota Ranch has evolved into a home for a farm market and now a hunt club.
On Saturday, 32 hunters from Northern Virginia and Culpeper County descended upon the club for skeet shooting and bird hunting, all in the name of raising money for Semper K9.
The Semper K9 program
Started almost two years ago by Christopher Beatty, a dog handler and kennel master for the U.S. Marines, the non-profit provides veterans with service dogs free of charge.
Morrison came to the outfit, along with Jud, and has since had his service dog certified by Semper K9.
Nine dogs have graduated from the program with another 12 in training currently.
Morrison knows firsthand the value a service dog provides.
“I was in a pretty bad place and the VA had tried 15 different medications for my PTSD,” he said. “None of it was helping. Now, with him, I don’t even have to take all the medication. And I’m out doing stuff like this, which I would have never been able to do.”
Service dogs are trained to be perceptive and Jud can pick on ques, even when his master is asleep.
“He wakes me up from night terrors,” Morrison said. “He will alert me when I start having a panic attack. He can alert me before it even starts. He watches my back.”
Morrison praised the Engh family – both father Jerry and son Jeremy served in the U.S. Army – for their dedication to helping veterans.
“It’s huge,” Morrison said. “Jeremy is prior military so he understands as well. When I asked him, he was 100 percent for it, there was no hesitation at all. All the volunteers we have here today are brand new.”
Engh, who served eight years in the army put in tours in Iraq, Somalia, Panama and Haiti. His father was a doctor during the Vietnam War era for two years. Both realize how important it is to continue to give back to fellow vets.
“It’s a great cause for the veterans and we’re also supporting the local wildlife population,” Engh said. “It fits with everything we do here from a business standpoint. It also works from a personal standpoint.
“How can you go wrong, helping vets?” Engh said. “It’s just a win-win. We do a couple Wounded Warrior things as well.”
The 32 hunters on Saturday helped raise $4,000 toward the program, Morrison said. While there is no cost for veterans to acquire the dogs, it still costs Semper K9 $20,000 to train the service dogs.
“We want to keep growing it, the goal is to raise awareness for the program and we want the guys and girls to have fun so it grows even more,” Morrison said. “Obviously we want to raise money but if we had one veteran here who said ‘hey, one of those dogs can help me,’ then we’ve done our job.”
Morrison said that a couple of veterans at the event expressed interest in receiving a service dog. Veterans who are interested simply have to fill out an application at Semper K9 and have a service related disability.
“I know first hand how much it can help,” Morrison said.
An ‘oasis’ in Culpeper County
Jeremy Engh compares it to Montana.
In the rolling hills of Culpeper County, sits an oasis of wildlife, serenity and a peek back into how life used to be.
Lakota Ranch started 35 years ago by Jeremy’s father Jerry as a grass-fed beef cattle farm, but has become much more in the past few years.
Now a unique farm market – where visitors purchase items via the honor system – sits on the property along with the Lakota Hunt Club.
The hunt club, led by guide Mike Theiss, offers big game experiences hunting native deer and black bear and also the Upland Bird Hunt, where hunters can flush out quail, pheasant and other birds on the property.
Theiss, who has served as a guide at several other locations, started with the Lakota Hunt Club earlier this year after a 10-year relationship with the Engh family.
“It’s isolated as you can possibly be from neighbors, it’s been an opportunity to come up here and get this started,” Theiss said.
Situated on a picturesque 726 acres, the hunt club is home to bucks that measure as big as 14 points and at least 10-15 bear.
“We have an abundance of deer on it,” Theiss said. “We manage our deer herd, which means we don’t shoot small deer on it. All are mature animals, we keep them on a mineral 365 days a year to help with antler growth. Black bear population has exploded in the past 15 years. We have 15-20 resident bears on this property alone.”
Jeremy Engh explained that the hunt club just started hunting birds in September and that the farm is discussing with the Audubon Association about becoming a naturally recognized grazing land.
“There’s certainly a shortage in the area and with the type of farming we do we have incredible grasslands surrounded by forests, it’s just natural for deer and big game to have both in their diet,” Engh said. “Today (Nov. 19) we’ll turn out over 200 birds. They’re one generation removed from wild stock, the hope is they’ll act more like wild birds and then the ones that get away will help repopulate.”
Theiss explained that hunting is a part of conservation, helping manage the herds and knowing which animals to harvest and which ones to help populate the herd. He also pointed out that it helps protect the nature of the cattle business.
“This is primarily a cattle farm, if they eat too much of the grass it takes money away from the cattle operation,” he said.
For those who frown on hunting, Theiss points to the area’s forefathers who hunted and harvested off the land.
“It’s a way of life,” Theiss said. “A lot of it is tradition, sure you all want to shoot that bigger buck but we shoot deer for meat as well. We’ve had kids come out that shoot bucks that are enormous. There’s nothing like that. The quality of animals is unbelievable here.”
Engh looked around his property, his eyes surveying the lay of the land as a small smile crept across his face.
“With the rolling hills in Culpeper County, you feel like you’re 100 miles from nowhere but you’re just 25 minutes from town,” Engh said.