The more exceptional our experiences have been, the harder it is to find people who understand them. It’s a sad reality about the human experience. The few that do have the ability to relate to our most intense circumstances, the triumphant and the traumatic, develop into more than just companions—they become lifelines.
There are no experiences as incomprehensible to the general public as those endured by Special Operations Veterans, and so, Retired Army Ranger and Green Beret Travis Hall has made it his mission to create new lifelines for them.
At his day job, Travis channels his immeasurable experience and combat medicine expertise to benefit Special Operations Soldiers as part of SIMETRI’s SPEARPOINTS Team. At its core, his nonprofit’s mission is no different: He uses training to save lives.
In actual practice, it looks very different. At Second Chance K-9, Travis trains and rehabilitates service dogs that he pairs with Special Operations Veterans in need, potentially saving two lives in the process.
To understand the two sides of Travis Hall’s life-saving training (and how he even finds the time for it), you’ll have to learn a bit more about him. More importantly, you’ll have to learn about Bear. Travis’s battle buddy and best friend, Bear, is the driving force behind Second Chance K-9, and proof that one good soldier can change the world–and they don’t need to be human to do it.
All great inspirational stories give us the chance to hold up the values we admire as a path that might lead us to a better tomorrow. Shining the spotlight on Travis’s professional work and his nonprofit service in Bear’s honor gives us the opportunity to showcase the profound impact that an experienced trainer can make when they are driven by a noble purpose.
Travis is a SIMETRI Senior Training & Development Specialist working on the SPEARPOINTS Prolonged Casualty Care (PCC) project out of Fort Campbell. PCC focuses on providing medical care for longer periods of time when mission circumstances prevent immediate transfer to proper extended care. A lack of evacuation capabilities and limited supplies can put combat medics in the difficult situation of trying to keep a patient alive in a hostile environment with few resources to draw from. With 24 years of service under his belt, this is something Travis is all too familiar with.
“I’ve had to hold an Afghan soldier of mine who was shot in the chest during winter, when the mountain passes were snowed in and we couldn’t get a medevac in,” Travis recounts. “He was on a chest tube, he was on a drain, all these things. Being the only medic there, it was my responsibility to feed him, clothe him, keep his wounds clean, and provide pain management. All of these things we do to make these guys better medics, I struggled with early on in my career.”
Medical training technology has changed quite a bit since Travis started out. As a SIMETRI Training Specialist, he has the ability to combine a career’s worth of expertise with cutting-edge simulation tools. SPEARPOINTS uses SIMETRI Smart Modules integrated with a Laerdal medical manikin. The result is the only manikin on the market capable of supporting PCC training, allowing Special Operations Medics to practice a wide range of previously unavailable training procedures, such as escharotomies, fasciotomies, amputations, and more. The modules physically simulate human anatomy while mechanical, electrical, and software interfaces track trainee performance and provide realistic feedback.
It has been 20 years since Travis underwent his initial medical training, and he is now able to take knowledge learned over 18 combat deployments and convey it to his trainees in a more technologically sophisticated way than he experienced back then.
“We have the ability to initiate a pneumothorax or demonstrate the need for a needle decompression on our instructor tablet,” Travis said. “I was rarely able to do an escharotomy or a fasciotomy and we have those abilities here, so it’s really cool to see the training come full circle.”
The critical PCC skills that Travis’s team translates to their trainees are becoming increasingly necessary as the international climate shifts and warfare continues to evolve. Travis’s last deployment in Africa saw a lack of hospitals and medical resources, drastically elevating the need for long-term care.
As U.S. military preparation veers away from the war on terror and towards the possibility of near-peer engagement, the expectation of rapid evacuations has diminished. In Afghanistan, the U.S. owned the air. Travis was accustomed to fast-paced and frequent medevac arrivals. If fighting an enemy with comparable military capabilities to ours, denied airspace becomes a serious issue. Medics may need to manage care for much longer before help arrives. SPEARPOINTS training is designed to account for these changes, and Travis is grateful to be a part of it.
“It’s a dream job,” Travis said. “I’m able to be here for the guys in a way that makes them stronger medics. Having this training means a lot to the 5th Group and myself because we’re preparing them for a longer, more difficult fight.”
Passing on knowledge to the next generation is a core part of who Travis is, but he didn’t always know that military service would be the vehicle he’d use to do it. Prior to enlisting, Travis wanted to be a high school teacher. It wasn’t until graduating college and preparing for his teaching certificate that he sat in on some actual classes and realized the public education path was not for him.
Raised in the Navy environment of Imperial Beach, Travis spent his youth on the surf in the presence of Navy SEALs. He had always wanted to emulate those men, and it was after his teaching plans evaporated that one SEAL very close to him set him on his path.
“He helped me make good decisions and set me up for success. Without him I would never have done any of this,” Travis said.
Two critical junctures of Travis’s life were decided by his connection to a Special Ops soldier. It was a Navy SEAL who inspired Travis’s career, and it was a canine Green Beret who inspired his nonprofit mission. Before he met Bear, Travis probably couldn’t have imagined spending his retirement dedicated to dog training. Although his family always had a dog growing up, he wasn’t anywhere near as passionate about them as he is now. In fact, becoming his unit’s dog handler started out as a creative way to continue deploying with his team.
“I became a dog handler for selfish reasons,” Travis admitted. “My team needed a handler and I was on the chopping block to be an instructor. I wasn’t ready. I wanted to stay on my team and continue to deploy. The way I could do that was to go through a year of training and rejoin them as their dog handler.”
The lifelong bond between Travis and Bear was forged in the heat of four deployments to Iraq. It proved just as unbreakable at home as it was overseas.
“Bear was a badass,” Travis said. “Post-service, he turned all of that off. He gave up chasing down bad guys, he gave up the bombs, and just became a really good dog for my family.”
Bear lived for another 5 years after retirement before passing away of old age. The loss of his teammate left Travis in a dark place. With no specific direction or long-term goals in mind, he found himself searching for, rescuing, and rehabilitating high-drive dogs. Once properly trained, Travis and his wife would give the animals to their military friends. This process soon transitioned into providing healthy, well-trained service dogs for Special Operations Veterans in need.
The Origins of Second Chance K-9
Bear’s own granddaughter, Misha, was among the first dogs Travis gave away. He received a call from a friend with a similar military history who had turned to alcohol to cope with his experiences. The friend told him that he was about to finish a drug and alcohol program and could use the support of a dog. Misha was Travis’s family dog and it had been a source of pride to continue Bear’s lineage inside of his own household. He pondered the best way to help his struggling friend and received an answer from his most reliable advisor.
According to Travis, it was Bear’s idea to give away Misha. As he sees it, Second Chance K-9, and all the good it does, comes directly from his best friend and brother-in-arms. Bear’s voice guides Travis, helping him determine which dog will be the best fit for each veteran.
“It’s not my nonprofit, it’s Bear’s,” Travis said. “I’m just the dumb schmuck he tasked to run it.”
Bear’s mission, carried out through Travis, is as necessary as it is noble. Second Chance K-9 offers Veterans the 24/7 trust, support, and sense of purpose that they can only get from a teammate. In essence, it offers them a lifeline.
Most of us can barely imagine the experiences of Special Operations Veterans. We’re able to offer our compassion and support, but it would be disrespectful to claim that we’ll ever comprehend exactly what they’ve gone through. The transition into civilian life can be long, and for some this process can feel quite painful or even hopeless.
Special Ops Veterans have a 30% higher chance of committing suicide, a 50% higher chance of post-deployment divorce, and an 80-90% percent higher chance of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder or Traumatic Brain Injury. Even with a solid support system of Veteran networks and medical professionals, their journey’s loneliness can be exacerbated by the fact that those closest to them—friends, family, and coworkers—have no context for the internal enemies they are silently combatting each day.
“It’s a lonely world out there post-military-service,” Travis said. “If you’re active duty working out of 5th Group, you have eleven other guys you can go to. You train, deploy, fight, and party together. When you retire, you’re kind of on your own. You may have friends who understand but you don’t get to see them every day. My goal is to remake that team environment, so you always have someone to go to.”
Second Chance K-9 isn’t giving their clients a pet—they are assigning them a teammate. While certainly inspirational, Travis and Bear’s connection is not entirely unique. Special Operations units serve with highly trained canines and learn to see them as fellow soldiers. That is why Travis only works with breeds his Veterans will relate to.
“Every one of my guys has been overseas with a Belgian malinois, a high-drive German shepherd, or a Dutch shepherd,” he said. “They know exactly what they’re getting into. There’s an instant connection.”
It’s not just about familiarity. Trust is a key component to why these breeds make a difference.
“You have to understand how many times my dog saved my life,” Travis explained. “Hundreds of times, whether he was finding bombs or alerting me about bad guys hiding in holes before we ran by. It’s the same for the rest of my guys. There’s a trust we all have. A Lab is an amazing dog as well, but our vets didn’t deploy with that dog. It didn’t save his life.”
These carefully chosen breeds are trained on Travis’s own property, with an outdoor kennel in the backyard and his garage currently serving as the indoor kennel. Spatial limitations and local ordinances only permit him to train two dogs at any time. Bear’s organization plans to get much much bigger than that.
The Future of Second Chance K-9
Second Chance’s dream is a 100-acre property with 6 six-dog kennels to house them throughout the different stages of their training. The expanded facility would also benefit the Veterans. Following an initial teleconference with a licensed clinical social worker, the nonprofit requires them to spend a minimum of 10 days on property with their dog before custody is granted. Right now, that involves one potential guardian at a time staying at Travis’s home.
Travis is working with Horizon Structures on a design that satisfies the needs of the dogs while simultaneously assisting their Veterans. Each of the 2-story kennels would have an apartment on the top floor for a Veteran to stay throughout the 10-day bonding period or longer, becoming responsible for the care of the animals below them.
“I’d like to be able to open up this space for Veterans who are struggling,” he said, “and having them help with the feeding and care will allow us to open the program up to more dogs. It gives our Vets exposure to the dogs and buys them into the program. We aren’t just giving them something, they are helping us create something.”
As with all noble causes, cost remains the most significant hurdle to expanding Second Chance. Travis and his wife spent $30,000 of their savings before finally transitioning into a nonprofit. That’s around the same amount that it costs to feed, house, train, and care for each service dog, and that price can get even steeper depending on the health of the incoming dog and how long it takes to complete training. Second Chance only takes in from $30,000-$60,000 a year as a nonprofit, so the pressure of covering costs still falls to his family on a regular basis.
Second Chance K-9 has trained and adopted out 28 dogs in total, with 12 finding homes last year alone. The nonprofit spent upwards of $400,000 on service dogs in 2021 and only received about $60,000 in support and donations.
While this can make for trying times, Travis never doubts his mission. The stakes are too high.
“Our main goal is to stem Veteran suicide,” he said. “We’re never going to stop it completely—it’s a pandemic. For those that do reach out to us, it’s our life’s work to keep them from making that ultimate decision.”
After a decade-spanning military career as an Army Ranger and Green Beret, Travis Hall spends his professional time training Combat Medics to save Active-Duty lives and his personal time training service dogs to save Veteran lives. Since he almost ended up educating teenagers at a public school in Southern California instead, we wondered if there was anything he learned from his lifetime of service he would be willing to teach us. We asked Travis if he had any words of wisdom to impart.
“Be slow to anger. Listen more than you speak. Always rely on your buddies.”
All three are hard-earned lessons that have served him well, and that last one is crucial to how he gets so much accomplished. Both sides of Travis’s life rely on trust and teamwork.
“You can’t do it alone. I’ve got SIMETRI behind me at SPEARPOINTS. I’ve got 5th group. I’ve got Zack, Josh, and Pete. We’re able to provide amazing training because we bounce off each other. It’s the same thing in the rescue. I rely heavily on my board and I couldn’t do Second Chance without my wife. She’s an amazing woman who has my back 100% of the time.”
Travis’s wife is Second Chance K-9’s COO, in addition to being a full-time licensed clinical social worker and handling the nonprofit’s Veteran advocacy and outreach. The role of managing the property and its canine residents often falls to her when his responsibilities require him to travel.
Just as it takes teamwork to make Bear’s nonprofit function, the organization itself is just one member of a much larger team. Second Chance K-9 occupies an important niche within the Special Operations Veteran community, but it takes the combined forces of all Veteran support organizations to make a difference.
As Travis puts it, “We make ripples. If I’m dropping stones in the water over here and my buddy is dropping stones over there, those ripples can become waves that make a huge impact on the Veteran community.
That idea is the origin of Second Chance K-9’s new motto: From ripples to waves.
Travis had one last bit of parting advice.
“Give a Veteran a chance.”
“Be slow to judge someone who’s been overseas,” he said. “You don’t know what they’ve been through or where their mind state is at. Don’t ever assume they are uneducated. I’m very educated but I have many Traumatic Brain Injuries, so I occasionally have to slow myself down when speaking. If you are an employer and you’re willing to work through your Veteran’s issues, can you imagine the drive, loyalty, and ability to work—things that are very much Veteran traits—that you will get out of that employee? You could give them a new lease on life.”