Battle Buddies

By Madison Van Horn

Eric Dudash standing tall next to Phantom. Eric explained the trials that Warrior Freedom had to go through in order to be here today. Saturday, February 12, 2022. (Photo by McKenna Pegrim)

The heroes that serve in the United States Military face unimaginable challenges every day in service, but for many veterans that is only the beginning of a lifelong mental warfare. 

Eric Dudash is a veteran who served in the special operations command for over 30 years and suffers from PTSD. However, he has discovered an unconventional form of medicine: his service dog, Phantom.

Audio by Eli Rushing
Video by Jerrod Niles

“Phantom is now my medicine,” Eric says.

Eric is all too familiar with the debilitating nature of PTSD as it has limited him from returning to the life he left behind to serve.

“The hardest thing for me was identifying that I have a challenge,” Eric says. “It’s hard to swallow because you don’t want to show any weakness.”

While Eric still experiences symptoms of PTSD, his battle buddy, Phantom, has changed his life for the better. Named after Phantom of the Opera for his beautiful singing, Phantom can perform 9 service tasks for Eric, including reminding him to take his medicine, waking him up from night terrors, and sensing his anxiety in public settings. 

“I thought that service dogs were only for mobility issues like missing legs or arms,” Eric says. “They are way smarter than that and they can help you way beyond what you can think of. We are battle buddies. I take care of him. He takes care of me.”

Eric adopted Phantom through Warrior Freedom Service Dogs, a non-profit in Flinstone Georgia that aims to help veterans just like Eric get back to the life they once loved. 

Tank, another service dog, wears his Warrior Freedom Service Dogs patch proudly. Tank has been training to meet the next group of veterans. Saturday, February 12, 2022. (Photo by McKenna Pegrim)

Adam Keith is the co-founder and CEO of Warrior Freedom and his first ideas to start a non-profit were born when he met Matt Weitz, a veteran who struggled immensely after returning home from Iraq. Matt’s life changed forever when Adam gave him the last labrador puppy from his litter and named it Freedom. 

“I was just one of those average Joes that wanted to help people just like anybody else and I think God had a different plan for making this a bigger deal than just helping a veteran,” Adam says. 

Since then, 17 veterans have graduated Warrior Freedom’s eight-week intensive program, where different dogs are trained and eventually matched with each candidate. Unlike your normal adoption process, at Warrior Freedom, the dog gets to pick its owner.

“That’s one of the coolest things at the end, is the dog really starts to hone in and pick the veteran. It’s really up to the dog,” Adam says.

Despite being a skeptic at first, Eric specifically remembers the day that Phantom chose him. After having a bad nightmare the previous night, Eric was walking Phantom, a typical task for veterans at Warrior Freedom, when all of a sudden Phantom stopped in his tracks and put his paw on Eric’s leg to ease his anxiety. Phantom continued his comforting skills throughout the walk and Eric was sold.

Phantom lays next to Eric Dudash. It has been a little over a year since Phantom first laid next to Eric’s feet, choosing him to be his partner. Saturday, February 12, 2022. (Photo by McKenna Pegrim)

“That’s when they knew that Phantom had chosen me,” Eric says. “I thought people were just absolutely bonkers for thinking that, but it’s absolutely true. He started choosing me at that time, saying ‘I’m going to work for you and I’m going to love you because I know you are going to love me back,’ type of deal.”

Now that Eric has experienced the life-changing benefits of owning a service animal, he has decided to join Warrior Freedom as a Codirector in the hopes of helping other veterans take control of their life.

“I want to just serve and help other veterans because it helps tremendously, and Phantom has helped me,” Eric says. “I was the one that said ‘There’s no way a service dog would help.’ But I’m here to tell you that this dog has changed my life.”

To learn more about Warrior Freedom Service Dogs visit https://warriorfreedom.org


Inside the Kennel

By David Whalen

Trainer Emma takes Tank outside of the Kennel for a training session. Tank is one of the many service dogs at Warrior Freedom. Saturday, February 12, 2022. (Photo by McKenna Pegrim)

Much like the Armed Forces, the dogs of Warrior Freedom’s program receive regimented training to develop specific support skills for their active service with their Veterans. Under the command of Co-Founder Adam Keith, Head Trainer Julie Jones Thorton, acts as the drill sergeant for the potential graduate dogs in their years of training, if they can survive the cut. 

“It’s a lot of work,” says Thorton. 

These dogs require a variety of skills that can be anything from medicine retrieval, waking from nightmares, or even recognizing and warning their veterans of oncoming panic attacks before they might be aware of it.

“They can learn to indicate and pick up when the vet is stressed,” says Thorton. “They can smell cortisone coming out of their system, which is the stress hormone, and they can learn to communicate that ‘hey, you’re stressed and we need to put some coping mechanisms in place or get out of here,’ all before the veteran may even be self aware of it.” 

But it’s hard work for everyone, especially the dogs. Even in purpose-bred dogs, only about 30% of dogs will make it to graduation. With a 70% drop rate, an exit strategy is needed. 

 “It can be because of anything,” says Thorton. “Afraid of thunder, hates cats, or would rather be a companion. They’re all great dogs, this just isn’t suited for them. So we have a growing list of people who would love a well trained dog as a pet or even emotional support animal.” 

Maybe not any dog can be a service dog, but a service dog can come from anywhere. 

Keith may have been breeding hunting dogs for more than a decade, but emotional support and service goes beyond calm around guns and retrieving dead birds.

“As far as where we get our dogs, I knew in the beginning we couldn’t just start breeding. I didn’t even know what we needed. So, we started rescuing dogs,” says Keith. Alongside shelters, Warrior Freedom also collaborates with local breeders and fosters houses for their potential cadets. Specifically the Humane Educational Society, located in Hixon, TN and Pet Placement Center in Red Bank.

After initial screening of both veterans and dogs, those who are selected begin their training course. The dogs themselves are housed on site and prepped for training before they are joined with their human counterparts.

Out of a pool of four or five Veterans, they will all meet once a week to work together with all the dogs to learn skills they’ll be needing. Later in the week, the veterans will come back to base camp as individuals to focus on specific needs. Week in and week out this program goes for about three months.

The whole time no veteran lays claim to any of the dogs, as everyone works together until the dogs decide themselves who they can best serve.

But the dogs are no strangers to good times, and Keith knows the importance of balancing work and play as it directly affects how they receive their training.

“After a morning of playing,” Keith says, “we’ll give the dogs some frozen peanut butter cups, turn down the lights, and play some soft music to let them fall asleep. Once they wake up, they’re calm, attentive, and ready to be trained.”

Canine graduates of Warrior Freedom’s program must pass three different Canine Good Citizen tests, Community Dog, and Assistance Dog International Public Access test. Human graduates receive a trained comrade for the ongoing wars that most people won’t notice, but as brothers in arms, the two learn to lean on each other. 


Madison Van Horn is a Junior Communications major who has a passion for writing, storytelling, and leadership. Her experience in feature writing and editing has led her to become an Assistant Editor in Rising Rock and Features Editor at the University Echo. Van Horn hopes to continue her education after undergrad and purse a career in professional journalism. She can be reached at vxf126@mocs.utc.edu.

Jerod Niles is a multimedia producer who specializes in camera operation and post-production. Niles has over 5 years of experience in media production and is always looking towards the future. He currently works on freelance jobs and is beginning his search for an entry into the production industry. You can find more of his work as well as contact information on his portfolio here: https://www.jerrodniles.com/

Eli Rushing is a Junior Communications student at UTC. He is a jack of all trades thanks to skills in writing, broadcasting, and audio editing. Eli has worked as a Sports Contributor at the Sparta Expositor and hopes to continue in that field after graduation. He can be reached at eli.rush@icloud.com

McKenna Pegrim is an aspiring Photojournalist currently attending the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga pursuing her Bachelor of Science in Communication. Pegrim has special interest in photography, journalism, and graphic design. Her passion for visual communication encourages her grow as a creative individual and cultivate a unified community here in Chattanooga. Pegrim is currently gaining valuable experience as an Intern for The McCallie School, which has opened her eyes to the many possibilities ahead. For business inquiries or questions, you may contact McKenna Pegrim at mlpegrim@gmail.com. 

David Whalen is an adventure sports documenter who prefers to tell stories of the great outdoors by immersing himself into it. Currently, a communications major at the University of Tennessee in Chattanooga, Whalen will spend his free time dangling from a rope in the woods to make sure he gets the shot just right. Over 500 miles away from his hometown, Chattanooga has brought limitless opportunity for adventurous stories from adventurous people. For more information and possible collaboration please contact: XPZ169@mocs.utc.edu  

Kylee Boone is a multimedia producer studying Communications at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. Boone utilizes her leadership qualities in her sorority and her family’s nonprofit organization with the Tennessee Baptist Children’s Home. She uses her skills in storytelling in order to give a voice to those who don’t have one and hopes to inspire others through her work. For more information, please contact at llb813@mocs.utc.edu

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