Kevin Doncaster: Training and delivering service dogs, changing lives

ABOVE: Kevin and his service dog Lacey on stage with the Bartlesville Symphony Orchestra. Photo by Stephanie Shields Photography.
By David Austin
Kevin standing with microphone
 A former Marine, Kevin is an IT Infrastructure analyst for ConocoPhillips in Bartlesville, Okla. Photo by Stephanie Shields Photography.

There’s job stress and then there’s something far beyond it.

Kevin Doncaster is familiar with those outer reaches.

Ten years ago, while serving in Afghanistan, Kevin’s helicopter was hit by enemy fire during a major Taliban offensive. The pilot managed to keep the chopper airborne and eventually got it back to base. That same day, a fellow Marine and close family friend was killed in action.

“I’ve seen a lot of horrible things,” says Kevin, now an IT Infrastructure analyst for ConocoPhillips in Bartlesville, Okla. “Those were difficult times.”

Too often for those who have gone through them, difficult times endure. Kevin spent seven years in Iraq and Afghanistan as a Marine and a Department of Defense contractor. He survived two major explosions and is legally deaf in his left ear as a result. He suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder, commonly known as PTSD.

Kevin outdoors, smiling, with service dog on leash sitting in grass
Inspired by his own service dog Lacey, Kevin has made it his mission to help others in need. Photo by Stephanie Shields Photography.

Despite the reminders of his previous career, some might call Kevin lucky. He was not killed in action nor did he lose a limb or other vital body part. He is familiar with suicide though, an affliction that claims far too many veterans.

“When you go through some things, they can change you,” says Kevin. “If you’ve never been shot at or had to pull the trigger, it’s difficult. And even after you’ve left that life, it can stay with you. If it does, you have to find ways not to let it consume you.”

A few years ago, Kevin was still searching for answers when he went to visit the mother of his close family friend who was killed in action. At the time, Kevin was on several medications and needed oxygen at night to help him sleep. When he arrived at her house, he saw she had a service dog to assist those who suffer from PTSD. Now a “Gold Star Mother” having lost her son in combat, she was doing her best to cope.

“She said her service dog helped her a lot and encouraged me to get one,” recalls Kevin. “She said it would change my life.”

A ConocoPhillips coworker was familiar with a place in nearby Pryor, Okla., that specialized in training service dogs. Kevin visited it and was soon introduced to an Australian Shepherd who would become his service dog — Lacey. The positive results of having a new friend and companion were immediate.

two men outdoors in military clothing
Kevin (left) spent seven years in Iraq and Afghanistan as a Marine and a Department of Defense contractor.

Lacey is housebroken and obedient. She responds to Kevin’s verbal commands and hand signals. If he is in a crowded situation, she instinctively creates space for him and will let him know if someone is coming up behind him, especially helpful given Kevin’s hearing challenges.

A particularly good skill that Lacey and other PTSD service dogs have is the ability to sense when the mind of the person they are with is beginning to wander into difficult terrain. They rub up against their person and escalate their actions until they have their full attention. Once the person focuses on the dog and not the painful recollections, they can gather themselves again.

Two weeks after Kevin got Lacey, a friend and fellow veteran committed suicide. Deeply troubled by the news, Kevin wondered what he could do to help his former comrades in arms. Then, Lacey pawed at him.

Two men standing in front of display
The Finnish word on Kevin’s shirt “Sisu” is used to describe a stoic determination and tenacity of purpose as well as grit, bravery and resilience.

Kevin’s creation — WarHawk PTSD Service Dogs — just passed its second anniversary. A nonprofit organization, it’s focused on training and delivering potentially lifechanging companions to veterans, first responders and others who suffer from PTSD. To date, the organization has delivered more than 30 dogs — all at no cost to those who receive them. Among the recipients have been a domestic violence survivor, a boy battling leukemia and numerous veterans.

“The military goes wherever they are needed,” says Kevin, “and that’s what we do.”

Kevin is in a good place now. He has been with ConocoPhillips for six years and loves his career. He no longer needs the medications that used to sustain him. He’s passionate about the help WarHawk can provide for those in need.

Those with a military background are tough by nature. They must be. But there are times when even they can use some assistance. Kevin has made it his mission to provide it.