With a lifelong love of animals instilled by parents who bred Labradors and golden retrievers, Chris Baity discovered his professional calling as a dog trainer while interacting with military dogs on a high school Marine ROTC trip.
He went on to serve eight years as a Marine — including three tours of duty in Iraq — teaching combat dogs to detect and locate weapons and explosives. After retiring from the service in 2009, and in his post-military work as contract trainer back home in Woodbridge, Virginia, he realized he could create a new life for shelter dogs by tapping into the same learning skills that made dogs so effective in the field.
“The dogs were great because of the bond they had with their handler,” says Baity, 35. “They worked as a team with the unit, keeping them safe.”
In 2014, he and his wife, Amanda, 35, launched Semper K9 Assistance Dogs, which provides free, trained rescue animals to be the equivalent of battle buddies for veterans suffering from physical or mental disabilities.
“You show these men how to work with a dog,” Baity says, “and all those disabilities just melt away.”
To read more about Chris Baity and his Semper K9 Assistance Dogs, pick up this week’s issue of PEOPLE on newsstands Friday.
Vets like Russ Walters, 30, of Burleson, Texas, a former Marine helicopter mechanic, train for up to six months with their animal; his silver Lab, Buster, was taught to detect oncoming anxiety attacks related to his PTSD.
“He forces me to pay attention to him, and then he won’t move until I’m calm,” says Walters. “He’s my main man.”
Baity, he adds, “goes out of his way to help people. He just wants you to have a better life.”
The volunteer-run nonprofit earned Baity the 2016 Red Bandanna Hero Award, which recognizes those whose efforts have made a difference and enhanced lives in an extraordinary way.
PEOPLE is joining with the American Heroes Channel and the Welles Remy Crother Charitable Trust, named for the young stock trader who died saving lives during the 9/11 terrorist attacks in New York City, to find and celebrate such heroes across the U.S..
To nominate a hero by July 4, go to AHCtv.com/redbandanna. The 2017 winner will receive a $10,000 donation to a charity of choice and be featured in PEOPLE as well as in an hour-long special airing on AHC next fall.
“Winning the Red Bandanna Award was a humbling experience,” says Baity. “I hope I can continue to inspire those around me, by continuing our mission, helping those in need. Just as Welles did.”