(Originally published as an op-ed for TheHill.com).
By: Rory Diamond, CEO, K9s For Warriors
Aug. 20, 2021 – Veterans are experiencing complex, often painful emotions as they come to terms with the U.S. military’s withdrawal from Afghanistan. For many, processing the situation may exacerbate post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and other mental health conditions that increase the risk of veteran suicide, a crisis the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) estimates is taking the lives of nearly 20 veterans every day on average. Congress passed the PAWS Act (with a unanimous vote in the Senate) earlier this month, which will establish a pilot program to cover the costs of Service Dogs for veterans experiencing PTSD symptoms. However, the bill continues to sit on President Biden’s desk in anticipation of his signature.
President Biden must expedite signing the PAWS Act now to help veterans access this scientifically proven PTSD treatment method to reduce their likelihood of dying by suicide. As the nation observes National Suicide Prevention week on Sept. 6 and the approaching 20th anniversary of the 9/11 terror attacks, the PAWS Act will have far-reaching impacts on veterans seeking to improve their mental health in the weeks and months ahead.
Why is the PAWS Act Important?
The Puppies Assisting Wounded Servicemembers (PAWS) for Veterans Therapy Act directs the VA to develop a program that will provide Service Dog training and other resources to veterans suffering from PTSD. It is an encouraging first step toward combatting veteran suicide.
Historically, the VA has declined to cover the cost of Service Dogs for veterans with PTSD; yet research has yielded undeniable proof of a Service Dog’s ability to reduce their veteran handler’s symptoms of PTSD.
Service Dogs specifically trained to pair with veterans are particularly effective at mitigating PTSD symptoms in public settings, whether that’s facing away from the veteran in order to alert them when someone approaches or using their body to create space for the veteran to be comfortable in a crowded area. They also can recognize and interrupt symptoms of anxiety by forcing their veteran to focus on them rather than spiraling into a panic attack.
These critical tasks and behaviors are instilled through weeks of intensive training, a process that can cost upwards of $25,000. No veteran should have to shoulder this financial burden. However, until the president signs the bill into law, the cost of a Service Dog will remain uncovered by veteran’s VA benefits.
What's Next After the Bill is Signed?
We owe it to our veterans, those who have already sacrificed so much for our country and are experiencing renewed struggles witnessing the current situation in Afghanistan, to provide them with the option of pairing with a trained Service Dog to help alleviate their mental trauma.
Once President Biden signs the PAWS Act into law, the next step must be continued communication with veterans and their health care providers to further raise awareness of this available treatment option. Along with continued pressure on the VA to acknowledge the efficacy of Service Dogs. Researchers at institutions such as Purdue University are conducting studies focused on the long-term impact of Service Dogs on veterans, their families, and caregivers. The results of these studies will empower clinicians to confidently guide their veteran patients toward the most effective treatment for their trauma.
In addition, more communities across the country must support partnerships between organizations that train Service Dogs, and animal shelters seeking to give rescue dogs a second chance at life. Some of the most effective Service Dogs were once shelter animals that were rescued with a special purpose in mind: training to help a veteran suffering from PTSD. Effectively, two lives are saved through one unwavering bond.
Military service is a selfless calling that has the potential to result in life-altering, sometimes devastating outcomes. For those who have assumed that responsibility in service to us all, it’s the least we and the White House can do to ensure they’re given the opportunity to restore their confidence and independence as they transition to life as a civilian.
Rory Diamond is the CEO of K9s For Warriors, the nation’s largest provider of trained Service Dogs for disabled American veterans (using primarily rescue dogs).