GILROY -- As Jeff Wilson talked about his beloved service dog, Lobo, his voice gradually became softer. Then, finally, it cracked. Even six months later, the tears came.

"It's just a big loss," he said, wiping his eyes.

Just then, from beneath his legs, a yellow Labrador retriever named Selah stood up with a look of concern, putting her head on Wilson's leg to comfort him.

"Here's the good that came out of this," he added, scratching her neck. "That brought me Selah and a new chapter of my life."

For two days in August, the Bay Area was caught up in the frantic search for Lobo, who was startled and bolted from the San Jose driveway of Wilson, a 14-year Army veteran who suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder and uses a cane after operations to both knees.

That story had a sad ending when Lobo was found dead on a Berryessa neighborhood highway, presumably after being hit by a car. Later that same day, Mary Cortani, the founder of the Gilroy-based Operation Freedom Paws, asked Wilson if he could watch another dog -- Selah.

And, just as she hoped, the playful Lab helped him get past his grief and became his new service dog.

"Selah has been a great comfort for Jeff because she prevented him from going to a dark place," Cortani said. "We all worried about that after Lobo died. But Selah makes him laugh and makes him feel safe."

In recent years, many post-9/11 veterans have returned home from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan only to struggle with the invisible wound of PTSD. Anywhere from 11 to 20 percent of those veterans are affected, according to the Department of Veteran Affairs' National Center for PTSD.

It has become clear that man's best friend can play a role in aiding some veterans.

Wilson, 45, was a tank commander as well as a helicopter flight engineer who served in Iraq in 2003. In civilian life, PTSD was getting the best of him.

"I would get really anxious and nervous, and would want to withdraw," said Wilson, a graphic design student at San Jose State. "Then I would get depressed. But I didn't want to be alone, so I would drink heavily to get the courage to go out. It was a bad cycle."

He thought a dog might ease his symptoms. Wilson found a kindred spirit when he adopted an affectionate mutt that had been removed from an abusive home.

"Lobo was part border collie and who knows what else," Wilson said. "He was a really mellow soul who could help calm me down."

Wilson came to Operation Freedom Paws to learn how to train him.

Cortani's innovative nonprofit specializes in matching veterans and others with disabilities to dogs that mostly have been saved from shelters -- breeds ranging from Chihuahuas to Great Danes. Then she helps the dog and person become a team.

"The reason we save the dogs is because they save the people," said Cortani, 55, who spent nine years in the Army training canines.

Wilson and Lobo were inseparable, as well as faces of Operation Freedom Paws. Wilson became a volunteer trainer and was featured in the media talking about how Lobo changed his life.

But on Aug. 20, Wilson's world was upended. He was getting Lobo into his vehicle to go pick up his wife, Gwen Templeton, from a medical appointment when Lobo was spooked by a loud noise. Lobo ran; Wilson, who just had knee surgery a few days earlier, couldn't catch him.

"When I got home, you were inconsolable," Templeton told Wilson as they sat together at the training center. "You had dropped your crutches. I don't know how you were walking. But you were willing yourself down the street and wouldn't listen to people who were telling you to stop."

News outlets were alerted. Flyers printed. Friends searched. However, Caltrans workers found Lobo's body.

"Mary and I had been talking about what would happen if we couldn't get Lobo back," said Templeton, 42. "We knew that losing him would bring up all the PTSD stuff, the emotions of loss that Jeff experienced in the war. But Mary had a plan."

Cortani had just received Selah, a washout from a Southern California guide-dog program because she had too much personality. She brought Selah to Wilson's home, and the dog ran straight to him. She helped get him through the next few weeks, and soon the four-legged character was a constant companion.

Selah now can pick up his cane, pull a wheelchair and even sleeps in his bed. She will wake him if he's having restless dreams. Templeton, who has a condition that causes chronic pain, also has an Operation Freedom Paws dog -- a Doberman pinscher-Lab mix named Ellie. As service dogs, their canine companions are allowed to accompany them in public places.

"The dogs have allowed us to do little things, like go to movies again," she said. "They give us a buffer and provide comfort."

And love. The 63-pound Selah climbed into Wilson's lap and happily nuzzled him before closing her eyes.

"So it's a happy ending," Wilson said.

He thought a moment.

"Actually, it's more like a continuing story."

For more information about Operation Freedom Paws, go to www.operationfreedompaws.org.