Despite such anecdotal evidence – and research that shows how dogs help veterans cope with post-traumatic stress – the Veterans Health Administration does not cover the thousands of dollars it costs to get and train a service dog.
Critics blame the agency’s bureaucracy and a bungled study. As a result, help is unaffordable to many, despite government estimates that 22 veterans kill themselves every day and research that connects thoughts of suicide with the post-traumatic stress suffered by nearly a third of veterans who’ve served since Sept. 11, 2001.
In a 2010 budget bill, Congress directed the Department of Veterans Affairs to study the use of service dogs. The study was supposed to have been finished in 2014, but it was suspended when dogs the agency got from a contractor had behavior problems and bit two children.
The agency redesigned the $12 million study, which is not expected to be finished until next year, Dr. Michael Fallon, the VA’s chief veterinarian, told a House committee in April.
A decision on covering costs of dogs for veterans with mental disorders won’t be made until at least the following year. The VA now helps pay for some service dogs, but only those used by veterans with vision and other physical problems.
Critics of the agency, including Rep. Ron DeSantis (R-FL), chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform’s national security subcommittee, say it’s wasting time.
“Veterans cannot wait until 2018. The problem of veteran suicides is too urgent,” DeSantis, a lieutenant commander in the U.S. Naval Reserve, said during the April hearing.
DeSantis has introduced the Puppies Assisting Wounded Service Members Act, the “PAWS Act,” to create a $10 million project setting aside up to $27,000 per dog for veterans diagnosed with the most severe forms of PTSD.
Money would come out of a Veterans Affairs budget for things like convention planning and office decor. The House Veterans Affairs committee is scheduled to hear the bill next week.
The project will “ensure our veterans have access to the potentially life-saving treatment of a service dog, as well as commissioning a study to evaluate the effectiveness of service dogs in treating post-traumatic stress,” said Kate Rosario, a spokeswoman for Rep. Keith Rothfus (R-PA) in an email. Rothfus is co-sponsoring the bill.
Rory Diamond, executive director of K9s for Warriors, a Florida nonprofit that provides 192 veterans a year with service dogs, said his group has helped veterans reduce medications, handle anxiety and face fewer night terrors or thoughts of suicide.
“Right now is the time to act – not after the VA gets its act together but right now,” Diamond said.
Research also shows the dogs’ usefulness. Early findings of a study by the Center for the Human-Animal Bond at Purdue University show service dogs reduce the severity of PTSD among veterans, including the frequency of night terrors and anxiety attacks.
Emmanuel Bernadin said the dog “Bronze” he got through K9s for Warriors doesn’t make PTSD go away but helps him cope.
Bernadin has had suicidal thoughts five or six times, once while still serving in Afghanistan, and the rest as he’s tried to deal with what he went through there. Bronze – as in Bronze medal – goes with the El Paso, Texas, man wherever he goes.
He said the French mastiff is so essential to his coping with feelings of guilt and anger, at times he’s chosen to be homeless to afford its food.
The memory of one incident from 2011 makes him break down.
Bernadin, who’d enlisted in the U.S. Navy but volunteered to serve in the Army under a program to bolster forces in Afghanistan, was assigned to relieve an officer at another camp who was going on leave. He caught a transport earlier than scheduled to get there early and learn how the other unit did things.
His original ride – the truck he was supposed to be on – was blown up. Everyone on it was killed. Bernadin said he still wonders about the soldier that was given his seat.
Once buoyed by a sense of purpose and “fighting for freedom” in Afghanistan, Bernadin, who is African American, returned home to unemployment and racial strife over the killings of Trayvon Martin by a neighborhood watch volunteer in Florida and Eric Garner by police in Staten Island, New York.
His marriage ended. Co-workers mocked him for hitting the ground when air conditioners made loud noises.
Bernadin said he recalled videos shown to service members before their discharge, warning of opioid abuse and homelessness.
They seemed like visions of his future. Rather than finding a VA medical system that honored his service, he encountered long waits and some staff who didn’t seem to care.
In a phone interview, his voice rose amid the sound of his pounding in the background as he described VA staff who tried to take away his dog during one appointment because the doctor was allergic. Telling the story, he eventually broke down in tears.
Bernadin said Bronze helps him get out of the house and function. Like other dogs trained by K9s for Warriors, it responds to a command to sit facing behind him — “We say, ‘He’s got my six,’” — while he uses an ATM. Bronze saves him the anxiety of having someone walk up from behind. Without Bronze, Bernadin said he would have killed himself. So would a lot of other veterans without their dogs.
“There’d be a lot more veterans on their backs,” he said. (Source: CNHI Washington Reporter | Kery Murakami | Jun 15, 2016)
Thomas Crisp is a retired military officer from Whitmire. His veterans updates can be found weekly in The Newberry Observer.