Veterans Denied Service Dogs

Veterans Denied Service Dogs
One Woman’s Opinion
  By Sheri de Grom

Veterans with Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome (PTSD) are denied service dogs by The Department of Veterans Affairs. The decision was published in the Federal Register on September 6, 2012.

Most of us don’t know about the Federal Register and how it passes administrative regulations that become law. I’d spent thirteen years with the Department of Defense (DoD) before I became intimately familiar with the Federal Register while working at Coast Guard Headquarters in Washington, DC.

I won’t bore you with a long explanation of how the system works. (It’s government we’re talking about and the details go on forever.) Suffice it to say, it’s an Administrative Procedure Act and government agencies are permitted to present detailed rules and regulations to the Federal Register and the public is allowed to comment. Unfortunately, the public is rarely aware the rules and regulations have been presented or that there even is such a process.

Congress considers itself too busy and congested—or perhaps gridlocked—to micromanage the jurisdiction of governmental agencies by writing statues to cover every foreseeable contingency.

The Department of Veteran Affairs (VA) published a sixty-seven page final draft of rules covering how the VA justified its decision. The VA cited “nationally established” and “widely accepted” training protocols for sight, hearing, and mobility-assisted dogs and the lack of similar training protocols for mental health dogs.

The VA will pay service-dog benefits to veterans with vision, hearing, or mobility-related injuries but not to veterans suffering only from post-traumatic-stress-disorder and other mental health disabilities.

I’m appalled by this administrative ruling. Research is available that proves the calming affect dogs have on patients in both nursing homes and hospice settings. Many assisted living facilities now allow residents to have their pets with them. The benefits are proving to far out-weigh any problems.

It’s a grave mistake to deny veterans with PTSD or any other mental disorder the benefit of having a service dog.

It continues to sadden me that a government study found veterans suffering from PTSD along with physical pain are twice as likely to get prescriptions for addictive painkillers than vets with only physical pain. I would like to know the cost benefit analysis, if there is one, comparing the cost of prescribed narcotics for veterans with PTSD vs. allowing them the benefit of a service dog.

Iraq and Afghanistan veterans with PTSD who already have a substance abuse problem are four times more likely to get addictive pain killers than veterans without mental health problems, according to a government study.

Veterans with PTSD speak openly of what service dogs do for them: surveying darkened rooms, turning on lights, re-orienting their owner during nightmares or flashbacks, navigating through crowds, sensing anxiety, enforcing boundaries for personal space and retrieving a cell phone. Most important, a dog provides unconditional love and companionship.

My opinion is that even an untrained dog can be a therapeutic dog. Those of you who read my series on traumatic brain injuries:  may remember the important part our shih tzu, Teddy, played in keeping my husband, Tom, safe.Teddy had no formal training. We’d rescued him from a shelter in Washington, DC, after he’d being seriously abused. It seems our unconditional love was all Teddy needed to become a highly-trained service dog.

From the moment Tom came home from the hospital with fifty-five years of his memory erased by a medical procedure, Teddy refused to leave his side. I never had to look for Teddy. If Tom was sleeping, our little white dog was glued to his side. If Tom was in his recliner, Teddy was there. I’d have to pick Teddy up and take him outside. He no longer roamed the gardens with me or made our routine rounds twice a day to fill bird and wild critter feeders. He’d always hung out with me, but now Teddy had a new job.

Through the years, Tom and I both have found joy and comfort with our rescue shih tzus. Teddy passed on in 2004 and I was convinced I’d never love and cherish another dog the same way. I also worried as we’d lost Tom’s constant companion.

Months passed and we didn’t have a dog. Tom was in the hospital again. We’d recently moved to a small rural town in the Ozark Mountains of Arkansas—it was time to get away from the hectic life of big cities and concrete jungles. We were fortunate in finding a home we loved next to a lake and serenity surrounded us. But our home was not complete. We didn’t have a dog. Tom was going to be in the hospital for a long time.

I needed a dog just as much as Tom did. The many months Tom had been in the hospital previously, I’d had Teddy at my side. He’d never left me alone. He was our own little warrior. How would I find another dog to fill our hearts and make our house a home?

How does our government expect our returning veterans to do what needs to be done to get their lives back on track?

I knew how to go to the shelter and make my way through the home inspection and fill out the papers and other items that were required to take on another rescue animal. Many of our veterans are unable to do this. The slamming of steel bars at the shelters can set off flashbacks. Some shelters are dark, a poor environment for both the pets and the veterans.

Most veterans don’t need a fully-trained service dog. They’d be happy to have a dog who would love them unconditionally. A dog who would give them a reason to get up and have a daily routine. It’s amazing the positive affects a dog brings into a lonely person’s life. But it’s more than just the unconditional love. When you walk down the street, people stop and talk with you and your pet. You meet other people at dog parks. Most important of all, you don’t commit suicide because who would take care of your dog?

Tom and I now have two rescue shih tzus and we love them dearly. We’ve moved from our lake house. After living in large metropolitan areas around the world, we recognized we needed a bit more excitement in our lives, but not a lot. You can find us most evenings, reading while we each hold our respective dog. It doesn’t get any better.

About Sheri de Grom

Retired Fed/JAG, 5 yrs. on Capitol Hill. Former book buyer for B and N. Concerned citizen of military drawdown. Currently involved in mental healthcare reform, health care strategist and actively pursuing legislative change wherein dual retirees are exempt from enrolling in Medicare at their own discretion without losing tertiary healthcare benefits. Monitor and comment on Federal Register proposed legislation involving Mental Health, Veterans Affairs, Health and Human Services, Medicare and rural libraries. Licensed OSHA Inspector to include Super Fund sites. Full time caregive to Vietnam era veteran. Conceptualized, investigated possible alternatives, authored, lobbied for, and successfully implemented Title X, Section 1095 (known as the Third Party Collection Program of Federal Insurance).
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28 Responses to Veterans Denied Service Dogs

  1. Sheri-I nominated you for Blog of the Year for all your wonderful work on behalf of our Vets and for just being an all around great person!

  2. Pingback: The Greatest Gift « theinnerwildkat

  3. Natalie – I couldn’t agree with you more. And, this is a perfect example of what our government(s) manage to do without the people knowing. Sometimes we can make it work to our advantage but not nearly often enough because so few people know about the administrative law process. Laws are passed that we must live by (unless we are able to over-turn them) and government wonders why we get so angry!

  4. An incredible post and advocacy. It’s shameful that governments continue to treat what should be their most HONORED citizen with such disdain and lack of care and consideration. These people fought, the detriment of their own healthy lives, for the security and peace of a nation. They should want for nothing. They should be supported at every turn and for any thing that may bring one ounce of comfort. Absolutely!

  5. Catie Rhodes says:

    I was wowed (all the way to tears) by your story about Teddy. They just don’t live long enough, do they?

    As for dogs being a comfort to veterans, I know this for a fact. One of our local veterans went through a horrible time when some local jerks shot is dog for fun. And that dog was all he had after he’d come back from overseas. It was so upsetting to him and such a dark time in our community. Here’s what I’m talking about:

    Anyway, I have a soft-heart toward veterans and what they go through after they come home from serving our country. This whole thing hurts my heart.

  6. That sounds like a very cruel piece of legislation. Dogs are so loving and curative. A friend of mine has a ‘healing dog’ that she takes to visit those who need her. I am not a dog lover (having been bitten twice as a child and thoroughly frightened but I do recognise that they make very good friends and Jackie’s work is so valuable. I send you all the best in your fight to make something good happen. 🙂
    PS I came to you from a comment on Thoughtsfromanamericanwoman.

  7. You are right, Sheri, this ruling is appalling. I wonder if any shelters have programs or would consider programs to offer rescue dogs to vets? I was very touched by the personal story you shared about Tom and Teddy. Life …

    • Patricia – I’ve contacted two rescue leagues asking them if they’ve heard about the ruling and would they be open to someone (me or someone else) helping them write a grant so that dogs could go through a program and then have them matched with veterans. Of course there’s more to it than just being matched–but it’s a start. This is something worth fighting for. If we hadn’t had Teddy, I wouldn’t have Tom in my life today.

  8. I wrote about a World War II veteran today, Sheri! Lovely information. We must be on the same wavelength!

  9. Lynn Garrett says:

    Sweet, sweet pictures of the puppies. How could anyone not benefit from the love they give?


  10. Mae Clair says:

    What a wonderful post, Sheri. I completely agree that pets, especially service dogs, have a profoundly postivie effect on those with medical conditions. It’s sad to think that our servicemen with PTSD are denied that option. My mother spent 13 months in a nursing home and the one thing that brightened her day was the monthly visit of therapy dogs. She was always so different then, excited and upbeat, as though those precious animals had reached into her soul and given her a new reason for living. In my opinion, therapy animals and service dogs are some of the best medicine available for those suffering from physical and mental ailments. Oddly enough, I just met a couple with a therapy dog “Liam” on a visit to a lake resort. I couldn’t help but fall in love with him and imagine every person who came in contact with him, especially those in need of love and comfort, did the same.

    • Mae – Thanks for your lovely comments–especially with the hectic schedule you are now on with your book tour. I’m appauled the Veterans Affairs Administration used an underhanded method (IMO) to sneak this law through. It makes it harder to overturn. I know from years of experience the value of having a dog in the house–they are so intutive.

  11. Kitt Crescendo says:

    It’s hugely disappointing to me that mental health service dogs are being denied to our vets. You’re absolutely right about the sensitivity and love of dogs. They are absolutely wonderful. I wish there were something more we could do.

    • There’s thousands of dogs who need loving homes and thousands of veterans who need their companionship. Often the presence of a dog and the responsibility of taking care of one will give purpose to an individual. I’m angered by the high suicide rate and the VA won’t take a look at the studies completed wherein elderly people who had dogs lived longer and had better health. In a survey, the elderly said it was all because they had a dog.

  12. Ah Sheri, I wish I could say I am shocked … but although this makes my stomach roll over … it is no shock to know the uncaring attitude our government has towards our veterans. This is yet another example of the insensitivity towards a growing problem and one I fear will not be addressed any time soon.

  13. Such a great post, Sheri. Once again, the government’s appalling behavior makes me sick. As if everyone with a brain doesn’t KNOW that there’s such a thing as PTSD and other mental problems which are as deserving as physical problems for aid from the government for which these individuals worked. I would imagine the majority of vets suffer from some form of PTSD. How could you not? Is it the fact that these individuals making the laws don’t have experience in a war zone? Talk about using someone then throwing them under the bus afterward, so to speak. GRRR. Makes me so mad.

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