JONI BONILLA CEO and Founder of Operation at Ease
Helping Veterans Combat Civilian Life Through the Love of Dogs
By: Krysta Kearney
“There’s always five minutes. To say you don’t have time, you are sabotaging yourself.”
Joni Bonilla is a strong woman; a role model and a succeeder with a giant heart. She is the founder of Operation at Ease, a service dog training program located in Schenectady, NY. Not everyone will just quit their day job and drop everything to put others' needs before their own. Operation at Ease was born out of compassion and a willingness to help both humans and dogs achieve happiness and freedom together. Six years later and having over 100 successful teams run through the program, Bonilla is doing just what she sought out to do.
“We have all these veterans who need these dogs...legitimately. WE, put them in situations which then cause them to require these dogs! WE, are the reason these dogs are being over bred and don't have homes. WE are killing them! So I started getting really pissed about it.”
Ever heard of that saying, ‘Don’t complain about something that you’re not willing to fix yourself?’ Bonilla is a prime example of one seeking out to lead by example. She turned a small idea of helping both veterans and dogs into a full-blown training program. It all started when a good friend of hers, Freddie, a retired Army Veteran was in need of a dog. Prior to him contacting Bonilla for help, Freddie had adopted a friend's dog who had moved away. Being someone that wasn’t keen on dogs, he didn’t think much of it at first. In time, the dog ended up giving him a sense of purpose again, gave him responsibilities and quite honestly, another reason to wake up every morning. Having had severe post-traumatic stress disorder, this meant more to him than anything, as he had been struggling for years. In ways it kinda got his whole life going, and on track again. When the dog passed, he reached out to Bonilla to see if she could find a service dog. At the time she owned and operated her own dog training facility.
What she thought would be a somewhat easy task ended up being a complete nightmare. Turns out there are many hoops to jump through which made it nearly impossible. It can take five years of being on a list to even get a dog and it’s typical to pay around 40,000 dollars. Enraged, she decided to do something about it, so she quit everything she was doing, started a Go Fund Me campaign and developed her own unique program unlike any other traditional types that she had seen. Hence, Operation at Ease began. It consists of small group classes with her, the veterans and the dogs. About 15 teams a year graduate and it takes around 8 months to complete. This guided training program provides people with the tools they need to continue to train their service dogs. Participation is very focused, one on one and is in a safe, controlled environment.
“Operation At Ease takes dogs from shelters, pairs them with deserving veterans and first responders and provides a free guided training program for post-traumatic stress and light mobility service dogs.” - OAE Website
This program is completely free and available to all veterans and first responders. Along with these services they do provide additional programs that do come at a cost. Some included are basic obedience, therapy, and puppy training. All funds support the shelter and go to the service dog program. Not only does the program provide some of the best curricula one could find and extreme care towards both the veterans and the animals, but participants have also found that the weekly commitment to the program has helped with all aspects of their lives. Having to have a responsibility, where they get up, go out of the house and even just show up is such a big accomplishment in itself. The design of the program really sets the veterans up to be able to maintain the relationships post-completion.
“We have found that this weekly commitment helps combat isolation, anxiety and depression. We use only force free, positive reinforcement methods when we train our dogs and we accommodate to the needs and abilities of our teams so that they can be successful. This program builds self confidence and provides a sense of purpose.” - OAE Website
Bonilla had never trained working service dogs until Operation at Ease and now 6 years later, she can’t imagine doing anything else. Her whole career has been devoted to training dogs. She recalls, when she was 20 she was walking with some friends outside at Ft. Bragg (where her husband at the time was stationed) when they came across a man sitting with a cute little puppy. He said that he had found it left on the side of the highway and asked if she wanted it. Without blinking, she said yes and took the dog. Appalled, She couldn’t understand how someone could take a live animal and leave it on the street. That particular dog ended up changing her whole life.
“There are two things I've known for more than half my life and that’s training dogs and the military community.”
From that moment on, her career encompassed dogs and she was a trainer at a variety of different facilities including her own. She says through the years she has made a lot of money watching dogs as it’s good pay. The most rewarding work she has ever done is the work she does now when there is no money involved. There is something different about it. It is literally their livelihood. For Bonilla, she saw that there was a hole, a disconnect where veterans needed service dogs but the resources didn’t allow them. She firmly believes that if you have the ability to do something, then you should.
“It’s not my job to make their world bigger, it's my job to make the world they’re in more comfortable. But your world inevitably becomes bigger because you have someone with you.”
Bonilla says people have preconceived notions on both what a veteran is and what a veteran isn't. As a society, we tend to block them into odd categories and disregard them. Since starting Operation at Ease, the program has taken on more meanings than she ever thought it would and she, herself has changed through it too. Never did she realize how much she would learn and what some of the unforeseen benefits would end up becoming.
“I was naïve as to how much advocacy I would have to do and how invested I would get. I don’t know that I was prepared for the gap that the veteran community has. The veteran’s community has a huge gap in terms of mental health care, support, stigma...it feels like America kind of just stops caring. I found that veteran discrimination is just as prevalent as any other in this country.”
She wanted to be able to help everyone, no matter what their financial situation was. Considering the lack of care and the disregarded attention that veterans receive, this has been her way to give back. The program goes beyond the walls of the facility. In the first half, they train one on one with Bonilla and then the second half is public access training. They bring the dogs out in the world and see how they do in social situations. This includes going to restaurants, riding elevators, and walking in a crowded park. Wondering where the dogs come from? If they have their own dog, they will do a temperament test first but if they don’t she works with the Mohawk Hudson Humane Society and the Animal Protection Foundation. Once they have graduated, Bonilla doesn’t lose sight of her students. She does routine follow-ups with them and makes sure they are able to provide housing for the dogs. They don’t want to limit their program to veterans that fall within only specific criteria, as all should have access to these services regardless of if they think they will be able to continue to provide or not. She has happily paid for veteran’s groceries, rent, DMV fees, put fences in yards for veterans with physical disabilities...if they have the money, they will help and they have always managed to have the money.
“You can be trained 100 times over to go out to shoot targets, kill, you can be told things, your body can be pushed but you don’t know, until you are literally boots in the sand, 100 pounds on the back and having no idea who was in the building you just blew up. The things they go through are surreal, they sound make believe but they’re not. I have a Purple Heart Vietnam veteran, and my card is on file at his vet for his dog. Why on earth is this man not able to take care of this...you know what I mean?”
This provides an example of how unjust our legal systems can be. A purple heart veteran, who risked his life for his country, can’t even seem to come up with the money to provide food for his dog. It’s disgraceful, outrageous. This should never be the case, our veterans should be better taken care of than they are. The things that veterans have gone through and continue to are unbelievable.
“Trauma is just anything that overwhelms the brain's ability to cope. That’s it...and that’s different for all of us. We each may get in the same car accident, with the same injuries but walk out feeling different and that’s ok. It’s just, your brain is overwhelmed with the ability to cope. When you witness or have to participate in a traumatic event, if you didn’t have a reaction to it, then there’s something wrong with you!”
One of her major goals is to help change the way that people view post-traumatic stress.
We shouldn't disregard people because of the trauma that they have been through. They shouldn’t be shamed nor given the proper treatment they deserve.
“They are just normal people. They are ordinary people who have suffered through extraordinary events. Whatever your worst day is, (and not to validate someone) but compared to their days, that's a picnic.”
The opportunity that these dogs provide for the veterans doesn’t really hold up to anything else. They say a dog is a man's best friend and it is pretty obvious that it’s the other way around too. A man is a dog’s best friend. They live for each other and provide for one another. A service dog is a working animal, not a pet. They are more than a friend, they are a provider and perform tasks to help and benefit people with disabilities on a daily basis.
When Bonilla was fifteen she got her first dog under very similar circumstances. A dog to provide comfort, care and friendship in a time of need. She was diagnosed with Thyroid Cancer which then spread into her lungs. Her battle lasted over a decade and she learned about the will to live and what the fight for survival really means. The journey was difficult and she faced many harsh realities. The particular cancer wasn’t common in kids, as it is usually seen in women in their forties. Because of this, there was overloaded stress associated with it and much of her treatment was as though she was an adult. These times were hard, as she often felt alone with no one to talk to. She continued on never allowing it to get her down, always knowing there was hope. Growing up her family didn’t talk about the realities of life or emotions, they didn’t even talk about her cancer, so in seeking comfort she asked her mother if she could get a dog. Her whole life she wanted one, yet her mother wasn’t a dog lover but considering the circumstances, they did! Of course, slowly Bonilla’s mother ended up falling in love with the dog and at the age of 20 when she was moving out of the house her mother said, “If you try to take Dakota you will see me on Judge Judy!!!” Her mother has had a dog ever since. Moving out even with cancer didn’t seem to phase her. She knew it was time to go, so she left and made her way.
It was challenging growing up in an environment where no one vocalized their feelings or was encouraged to be open. Her eldest brother has Asperger's syndrome and growing up in the eighties and nineties, it was before anyone really knew what it was, she swears some of her family is still in denial. She accredits an infomercial to being her source in learning that she had anxiety, as she experienced all the symptoms listed. As crazy as her mother could sometimes be, she always knew she would stick up for her and has attributed to her confidence over the years. She always said, “You do what you have to do and I’ll take care of the principal.” She never had to worry about the consequences of sticking up for herself, as her mother would always have her back. Bonilla recalls the first bully of her life when she was young. Her mom approached her and basically said, ‘If you want to fight my daughter, then ok! Meet her at this time, on this day...because it’s time to get it over with.’ So, during that particular day and time, Bonilla went and stood in the arranged spot and watched her bully just ride by on her bike, and that was it! That was a huge moment for her, a big learning lesson in life.
“That was the day I realized you just have to tell a bully you’re gonna punch them in the face.”
Having this lawless attitude made her a bit troubled of a child but it also gave her a sense of independence. She says, “What people think about me is none of my business.” At the end of the day, someone isn’t going to like you, it’s just a fact of life. So, you might as well like yourself. What else do you have if you don’t?
She took this attitude onwards with her as she entered adulthood. When she left her hometown, the quaint picturesque oceanside New England town of Winthorp, Massachusetts, she discovered an unknown world. Ft. Bragg is the largest military base in the US with over 57,000 military personnel. Situated in the middle of North Carolina, she was completely out of her element. Civilian life is hard on a base. She very quickly learned how hard it was to fit into the social structure and make friends. Not only was it a struggle with the other women but there was also an extreme culture shock and feelings of being alone. Your husband gets deployed and is gone for months on end, the world has so many unforeseen disasters that leave you always on edge and you live in a state of uncertainty, never knowing what’s next.
“When I moved to Ft. Bragg and I say this as a military spouse I had NO idea what I was getting myself into. I felt like I was an extra in a movie. There’s politics, your job is their job. You have to be able to weather the storm. We used to joke that some people’s husbands worked from 9 AM - 5 PM but ours worked 5 AM - 9 PM. I didn’t know 9/11 was going to happen...how would I know that? I didn’t know that we would be in Afghanistan and Iraq and I didn’t know the lunatic that runs North Korea acts up every six months.”
After Ft. Bragg, she and her ex-husband moved to Ft. Drum, which is what brought her to NY. She absolutely loved the little town of Watertown. They ended moving to the Capital Region over 15 years ago and she completely identifies with the area. Having no desire to live on the coast again and considering the mountains her new home, she doesn’t see herself going anywhere anytime soon. She has built a happy life with her new husband. Now, having kids of her own it is important to her that they be forward thinkers as well. She is the proud mother of a fifteen year old daughter named Taitum and a thirteen year old son, Braeson. Both are bright, independent, and eccentric kids. Taitum is her biological daughter and Braeson is adopted. Having had so many medical issues through the years she never wanted to be pregnant or give birth because of all of the complications that could arise but her partner always wanted a biological kid. After Taitum, they decided to seek adoption for their second child. She says she wishes more people would utilize adoption and can’t imagine her life without Braeson, or any of her family's lives without him for that matter. Her kids are best friends, they do everything together.
One of the most monumental moments as a mother, when she was the proudest was when Taitum was in the fifth grade and they had an awards ceremony. Taitum was awarded, ‘Walk to the beat of your own drum,’ award. Her kids are already a representation of themselves and she couldn’t be more proud of them. They don't hold back. One big thing that she learned awhile ago and she tries to always keep in mind is that kids grow up and do whatever they always want to anyway, so there isn't much you can do but relax. At the end of the day, she doesn’t worry about them.
“We roadblock ourselves. Stop being your own worst enemy. Don’t listen to all the people telling you the reasons you can't do it. They’re lying, they’re jealous, that's their insecurities projecting onto you. There’s always a way to do it.”
Bonilla has always pulled the trigger, she has always taken leaps and bounds, no matter how scary or unknown it may be. There is only one way to make things happen and that is by doing them. She has always known what she has wanted to do, to help people and animals. Never once in her life has she made a decision because of money, it’s always out of love, care and faith. Take it from her, twice now, she has quit her job and started businesses, just thought, screw it, it’s important to me, I will figure out a way. If there is a will there's a way.
“If you want it, it will come but you have to want it. I really think there is just nothing we can't handle. I mean you are alive today and I work with people who literally have had to make the decision to live or die. And in that moment, in that actual live or die moment,...they chose to live. You want to live, so live!”
Operation at Ease recently expanded and is taking in first responders. Their goal this year is to take in nurses, as Bonilla says the fight has changed, she wants to open an emotional support program for essential workers. They are also starting to outgrow their facility and know sometime in the future they will be expanding into their own larger space. Check out the links below to find out more about Operation at Ease!
“At the end of the day you are the only person that has to be good with you and if you can get your head on that pillow and be like, I’m good with me and if you wake up and get your feet on the ground the next day, then you have won.”
Q + A
Q: Do you have any words for women?
“If you think that this is just how it is or that you are being treated fairly, it’s because you are comfortable.”
“It’s ok to be uncomfortable and it’s ok to be the bitch. It’s ok to be the bitch. If people aren’t talking about you you’re not doing it right. If everyone loves you, you’re doing it wrong.”
People have to not like you, you’ve gotta piss people off...don’t do it intentionally, don’t go key anyone’s car (haha). But set a boundary, tell people no, give yourself permission to be the bitch. I probably did that 10 years ago, decided I am going to be the bitch that I am. It was the most liberating moment of my life. Stop being mad at people because they’re not somebody else. They are who they are. Everybody will come if you want it, it will come but you have to want it. I really think there is just nothing we can’t handle.”
Q: What does Moxxi mean to you?
A service dog, a cute pitbull that went through her program is named Moxxi. “Moxxi’s ‘person’ is very friendly and outgoing and wears like 8 different hats. She is a yoga instructor and savage businesswoman. Like no matter how many times you ask her what she does for a living you don’t know. So all that means to me is that they’re important.”
Q: Any other thoughts?
“When our people come to our program, when they show up, to me...this is the bravest thing they have ever done in their life. When you take an invisible disability and put it outside of you, that’s pretty badass. That’s pretty badass.” Especially when you are the stereotypical, ‘they shouldn’t look like that.’ When you take that and you are ready to take what comes with that, that to me is the bravest thing they’ve ever done. And these people have fought wars but I think that’s braver.”
Interested in learning more about Operation at Ease? Take a minute to look at these links!
If you are in the Capital Region area of NYS, these are some great agencies that Bonilla sources her rescue dogs from