In a nation who has been at war for more than a decade, the rate of service members diagnosed with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI), and the frequency of suicide, has radically risen. The backlog of veterans waiting to receive benefits has also dramatically increased. This is leading to longer waiting times for diagnosis and treatment. To date, no authority seems able to find a viable and expedient solution to any of these problems. Yet, nationwide, some veterans are finding a solution. They have discovered the healing power of a service dog. While this is not a cure for PTSD or TBI, it is extremely beneficial to those who have chosen to utilize this tool in their recovery.
Since the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on September 11th, 2001, the United States has been at war. To date, approximately 1.64 million (Rand) U.S. service members have deployed in support of Operations Enduring Freedom (OEF, Afghanistan) and Iraqi Freedom (OIF, Iraq), many have deployed multiple times. Of the nearly 60,000 U.S. casualties, 6,778 have lost their lives (iCasualties.org). This means approximately 50,000 have returned home with injuries from minor to catastrophic. Many of these casualties would not have survived in previous wars but thanks to better protective equipment, medical advances, and the ability to rapidly evacuate the injured to medical facilities both in country as well as in Europe and the United States, service members are routinely surviving wounds that would have formerly been fatal. This decrease in fatalities is leading to an increase in veterans returning with traumatic amputations of one or more limbs, TBI’s, and PTSD seeking compensation and treatment through the Veterans Administration.
PTSD and Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) have been called the signature wound of the War on Terror. “Although these invisible wounds would appear less severe than the amputations inflicted by the IEDs, they affect many more service members and can have as much impact on the casualty’s future as the loss of limbs” (Kreisher). According to a recent report, nearly 30% of OEF and OIF veterans are being diagnosed with PTSD (Reno). Compare this number to The National Center for PTSD which has “estimated the lifetime prevalence of PTSD among adult Americans to be 6.8%” (Gradus). Part of this massive difference is likely due in part to many service members serving multiple combat tours in their careers.
PTSD is a condition that has been around since the invention of war. It has been called many names: Nostalgia, Homesickness, Soldier’s Heart, Neurasthenia, Shell Shock, Combat Stress, and finally in 1980 the American Psychiatric Association called it Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and added it to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. PTSD is comprised of a set of symptoms which include re-experiencing the traumatic event, avoiding places, events, or objects that remind one of the trauma, and hyperarousal. Most people feel many of the symptoms of PTSD after a traumatic event, but those symptoms fade with time. To be diagnosed with PTSD, the symptoms must last longer than 6 months.
PTSD can be extremely debilitating, leaving veterans homebound and isolated, suffering from co-occurring mental health issues and addictions (generally caused by self-medicating their symptoms). Add to these issues a Traumatic Brain Injury and you have a recipe for disaster. TBI’s can range from mild to severe, even resulting in death. The symptoms include loss of consciousness, memory or concentration problems, headache, dizziness, sensory problems, fatigue, convulsions, and emotional disturbances. “According to a Rand study, about 19 percent of troops surveyed report a probable TBI during deployment” (Williamson). Many symptoms of PTSD and TBI mimic each other, making definitive diagnosis difficult for some patients. How much of the patients symptoms are related to PTSD and how much to TBI? Patients and doctors are often left in a guessing game as to whether the symptoms require therapy, medication, or both.
The great influx of veterans returning home from the current conflicts has caused a massive backlog for the Veterans Administration. Currently, “401,000 claims remain officially backlogged, meaning the applicants have been waiting at least four months” (Glantz). Many of these are waiting a year or more for appeals related to service connected disabilities. This means veterans, who are too injured to continue their military service and unable to achieve successful and meaningful employment in the civilian work force are waiting for their disability compensation for a year or more, putting them and their families in financial peril. The stress of dealing with gathering the enormous amount of information required to fill the claim, the aggravation of having your claim misplaced, delayed, or denied only adds to the problems already being endured by the veteran.
The stress of dealing with PTSD and fighting the VA’s red tape backlog is lending itself to the suicide epidemic plaguing our veterans. Senator Bernie Sanders said, “Without being overly dramatic, let me state that we are losing 22 veterans every day from suicide. This is a tragedy that we must address. I know that no one in the VA, no one on this committee, wants to add to that tragedy, because of unnecessary delays that could extenuate the problems that veterans express” (Johnson). In 2012, the suicide rate of active duty personnel outpaced combat fatalities. “Access to care appears to be a key factor, […] once a veteran is inside the VA care program, screening programs are in place to identify those with problems and special efforts are made to track those considered at high risk” (Maze). The veteran suicide rates are outpacing that of the civilian population. In reports from 48 states, the suicide rate among veterans is 30:100,000 compared to civilian rates of 14:100,000. This is more than twice the rate of the average American citizen and is increasing at double the rate (Hargarten). Traumatic Brain Injuries can increase the propensity toward suicide, as can the overwhelming symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. According to Hargarten, “concussions also are a chronic risk factor leading to suicidal thoughts, […] because head trauma makes people more vulnerable to suicidal thoughts” (Hargarten).
Over the years, countless studies have been published promoting the health benefits of owning a pet. Pets can, lower blood pressure, encourage exercise and socialization, improve mood and reduce stress. Is it any wonder they are being trained to assist disabled veterans struggling with the effects of PTSD and TBI? Training dogs to assist with disabilities is not a new concept. Most people are quite familiar with service dogs for blind or wheelchair bound individuals. However, those with invisible disabilities can also benefit from a service dog.
Psychiatric Service Dogs can be trained to assist their handlers in many ways. They can be trained to retrieve assistance during a disabling episode, either a nearby person or by using a special K-9 rescue phone to dial 911. They can be trained to answer the door and lead first responders to their handler. They can provide balance during episodes that potentially cause dizziness and help their handlers up off the floor. These dogs can be trained to alert to increasing anxiety levels so their handler can more effectively handle the symptoms before they become overwhelming and disabling. They can pull their handlers from dissociative episodes, or flashbacks, wake their handlers from nightmares, provide deep pressure therapy during panic attacks, and give their handlers a sense of ‘crowd control’. In short, these animals are giving back to veterans something they lost when they left the service…a battle buddy – someone who has their back twenty-four hours a day.
The legal definition of a service dog, according to the Americans with Disabilities Act, is a dog that is “individually trained to do work or perform tasks for people with disabilities” (ADA). These dogs and their handlers are granted public access by federal law, meaning they must be allowed wherever the handler would normally be allowed without the presence of their dog. There are some restrictions such as sterile environments, such as operating rooms or burn units, and private property. They are allowed in stores, restaurants, hospitals, and anywhere else the general public goes. This protection enables veterans who had previously been home bound to return to the world without the crushing effects of PTSD plaguing their every movement.
United States Marine Corps Captain Jason Haag, credits his service dog Axel with saving his life. “I’ve led 150 Marines into combat three times. I couldn’t walk out of my […] house to buy a pack of gum. I couldn’t go to sleep without a gun underneath my pillow. That’s how bad my PTSD was” (HLN). Captain Haag states that after returning from Afghanistan he began drinking heavily, having angry outbursts at his family, unable to leave his basement and on 32 different medications. “Axel hit the reset button for me” (HLN). Since graduating from K9s for Warriors more than a year ago, Captain Haag has radically decreased his medications – to 2 per day, he now regularly participates in family activities, and has even been to Capitol Hill, advocating for service dogs for veterans with PTSD (Haag).
Captain Haag’s story is not an anomaly. Most graduates have returned to a new ‘normal’ of doing the everyday things that most take for granted, such as walking through the grocery store or visiting their children’s school.
K9s for Warriors is just one of many non-profit organizations who are training service dogs for veterans with PTSD and TBI. These organizations train and place service dogs with disabled veterans, often at little to no cost. They are filling a gap left by the Veterans Administration, when they discontinued a congressionally mandated study on the efficacy of service dogs for veterans with PTSD.
There is still reason for optimism, though. Two bills have been introduced into the House of Representatives this year with the intent of expanding the availability of service dogs for disabled veterans. H.R. 183 – “Veterans Dog Training Therapy Act”, introduced on January 4th, 2013 directs the VA to begin a pilot program to research the efficacy of service dog training and handling in the treatment of PTSD. H.R. 2847 – “Wounded Warrior Service Dog Act” would direct the “Department of Defense and the Veterans Affairs to jointly establish the K-9s Companion Corps program for the awarding of grants to assist nonprofit organizations in establishing, planning, designing and/or operating programs to provide assistance dogs” (govtrack.us). Should these bills pass, perhaps in time the studies will confirm what those veterans who already have service dogs know.
According to Sandi Capra, the Director of Development for K9s for Warriors, of their more than 100 graduated teams, 92% of graduates had reduced or eliminated their need for medications, and 94% have reported reduced symptoms of PTSD (according to the Harvard PTSD standards). At one year from graduation, 95% of teams recertify successfully. These achievements are not an isolated occurrence. A simple online search of service dogs for PTSD returns more than 286,000 results. You will find countless news stories about homegrown veterans reclaiming their lives thanks to their new ‘battle-buddy’, veterans attesting to the lifesaving partnerships they’ve found in a service dog and web pages for scores of organizations who train these dogs for our disabled veterans.
These stories are not the ‘too good to be true’ paid endorsements for the latest fly-by-night “cure” for PTSD. They are not random coincidences. They are the stories of recovery from a devastating and debilitating invisible injury. These dogs are not a cure. They are a tool in their handler’s arsenal for coping with and overcoming some of the obstacles associated with PTSD and TBI. There is a reason they are referred to as “man’s best friend”. They are the heroes on four legs and they are giving a new ‘leash’ on life to veterans who suffer from the invisible wounds of war.
Capra, Sandi. K9s for Warriors. Director of Development. Personal interview. 13 November 2013
Glantz, Aaron. “Overtime, New Computer System Put Sizable Dent in VA Benefits Backlog”. The Center for Investigative Reporting. 11 November 2013. Web.
Gradus, Jaimie L., “Epidemiology of PTSD.” National Center for PTSD. n.d. Web. 24 November 2013.
Haag, Jason. Personal Interview. 13 November 2013.
Hargarten, Jeff, et.al. “Suicide Rate for Veterans Far Exceeds That of Civilian Population”. Center for Public Integrity. Web. 30 August 2013.
“HLN Stories of Courage – K9s for Warriors”. Headline News. Television. 11 November 2013.
iCasualties.org, Coalition Casualties by Year, n.d. Web. 24 November 2013
Johnson, Bridget. “Sanders: VA’s Massive Claims Backlog Could be Contributing to Vet Suicides”. PJ Tatler. PJ Media. Web. 13 March 2013.
Kreisher, Otto. “Biding the ‘Invisible Wounds’.” Brainlinemilitary Brainline.org. n.d. Web. 24 November 2013.
Maze, Rick. “18 Veterans commit suicide each day” Army Times. Web. 22 April 2010.
Reno, Jamie. “Nearly 30% of Vets Treated by V.A. Have PTSD.” The Daily Beast Presents: The Hero Project. The Daily Beast. 10 October 2013. Web. 24 November 2013.
“Service Dogs.” ADA.gov. Web. 12 July 2011
Williamson, Vanessa and Mulhall, Erin. “Invisible Wounds – Psychological and Neurological Injuries Confront a New Generation of Veterans”. Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America. Issue Report, January 2009. Web.