KILLEEN, Texas — A light breeze blows across the landscape at Lions Club Park in Killeen, the sun shining overhead as the hum of life zips around the beaten concrete paths.
"My love for dogs came from after a hard time in the military as I've been through some stuff," River Brooks explained, his dog Riggs laying on the park bench table in front of him. "The bond that I built with one of my first dogs was sensational."
Brooks is hesitant to talk about what happened at Joint Base Lewis McChord in Tacoma, Washington more than a dozen years ago but admits what did happen there has never left him.
"During the sexual assault I went through in the military, I reported, and it didn't go anywhere," Brooks said. "It got pushed aside and I was in the same unit with my sex offenders for almost two years."
Brooks said depression took hold and it held on tight for as long as he can remember. Angry at the world, he felt alone with no one to turn to.
"I felt like, at that point, people had turned their back on me," he recalled. "You spend all of this time trying to build this up with these friends, these comrades and they turn their back on you and it just hurts."
As the pain and heartache of realizing that life would never be the same, Brooks said he turned to his dog for comfort and the support the Army and it's leadership failed to give him.
"When I had my dog, I knew that he would never turn his back on me and I knew that no matter what, he was going to be there for me," he said. "He wouldn't put me through the same thing that people put me through."
After leaving the shadow of JBLM, Brooks transferred to Fort Hood before he medically retired in 2016. It was through that love, companionship and trust that Brooks realized that he could give to others what he got from his dog in the darkest hours of his life.
"Just because what happened to me happened, it doesn't mean my life is over. My dog gave me meaning and he saved me," Brooks said. "That's why I wanted to build this company the way I did."
KEAL K9 has only been active for a few months and is based in Killeen with a purpose of changing not only the lives of dogs but also their humans.
"I wouldn't be here, I wouldn't be here with my dog," he said. "KEAL K9 stands for 'Keeping Everyone Alive,' whether it's a veteran or a dog or if it's someone that's struggling with the loss of somebody. I want everyone to understand that we're trying to keep everyone alive."
Brooks said this is where you'll find him more times than not, at Lions Club Park, helping dogs, even the ones without a home.
"I take in dogs that people don't want, I take in dogs that, you know, need help and people have given up on," Brooks said. "I train them and, half the time, I give them to a veteran."
Brooks message is that dogs need veterans as much as veterans need them, even if they don't know it yet. Dogs, he promised, can bring people back from feeling at the end of their rope and alone.
"I really hope to alleviate the 22 a day and if I can help less veterans commit suicide by helping them with a service dog, by helping them build a bond that's going to have that loyalty, that would be perfect," Brooks said.
While what happened at JBLM in Washington State was a long time ago, it's also part of the driving force behind a business model and hope for KEAL K9's future. One built on the principal that everyone needs a dog and that man's very best friend needs you and me just as much.
"I want them to understand that it's more than just a pet, it's a friendship and it's a forever friendship," he said. "A dog is going to love you no matter what."
If you or someone you know, especially a veteran, would like to connect with River, you can reach him directly through e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org