Shari Duval, who founded and built the Ponte Vedra-based K9s for Warriors veterans nonprofit into a national presence, has died after a battle with cancer.
She was 75.
“I’m heartbroken,” CEO Rory Diamond wrote on Twitter. “She had been valiantly fighting cancer over and over and winning and this last bout was just too much.”
Duval founded K9s For Warriors in 2011 to train shelter dogs as service dogs and pair them with veterans suffering service-connected post-traumatic stress disorder, traumatic brain injury and military sexual trauma. As of January the nonprofit has “rescued” 1,268 dogs and 650 veterans, according to the website, at no charge to the veterans.
“Shari created K9’s for Warriors through sheer grit, love and a tenacity that I’ve never knew existed,” wrote Diamond, who is also a Jacksonville City Council member. “She pioneered how to love on our warriors and stop veteran suicide. Like so many others, she changed my life forever. … As one of our warriors just said, ‘St. Peter is standing at the Pearly Gates and when he sees Shari he will surely open wide the gates of heaven and say ‘no introduction is needed to a saint such as yourself.'”
Hayden Reed, manager of canine support operations at K9s for Warriors, introduces support dog Sully to then-second lady Karen Pence as she toured the facility with the nonprofit’s founder, Shari Duval, in 2020. (Bob Self/Florida Time Union)
Staff and warriors alike called her Mom. In December the K9s for Warriors main campus was renamed “The Shari Duval K9s For Warriors National Headquarters.”
Diamond’s fellow council member, Brenda Priestly Jackson, wrote on Twitter that he and fellow K9s staff and supporters “will continue the act of creating together & continue her legacy of services for veterans.”
In 2017 Duval was named a Florida Times-Union EVE award winner for her work with veterans. She told the paper that she started K9s after her son Brett, a veteran K9 police officer, returned from two Army tours in Iraq a changed man, with severe post-traumatic stress syndrome.
“I would have lost him to suicide,” Duval told the paper. “His body came home, but he didn’t … My son was still in Iraq.”
Doctors couldn’t help, but she found research on post-traumatic stress disability that showed service dogs could. When Simon began working with a Belgian Malinois named Reagan, the “old Brett” emerged and K9s for Warriors was born.
In the beginning, she had no financial resources except her own, no facility and no dogs. But Duval grew the nonprofit into what she said was the largest, most successful service dog program in the United States for veterans with the Ponte Vedra Beach headquarters and other campuses in Alachua County and San Antonio.
“The best way we could help these deserving warriors was to … train and give service canines to assist our warriors’ efforts to return to civilian life with dignity and independence,” Duval said on the K9s website. “We have been honored to serve these brave men and women that have given this country so much.
“We are a small charity doing huge work and making a difference. Our men and women of our military fought for our tomorrows, so we fight for theirs,” she said. “Our program has been successful, with documented recovery from the debilitating horrors of war, but the need is critical and overwhelming.”
After K9s posted news of her death on Facebook, hundreds of people commented on the impact she made and the lives she saved. They said she was an angel on earth.
“My husband Daniel was K9s for Warriors’ first graduate. You helped him soooooooo much and paired him with Sarge the first graduate pup. Thank you for everything you did,” wrote Valeria Dorantes Harasim.