ALBANY, N.Y. — The U.S. military estimates around 20 out of every 100 veterans returning from wars in Iraq and Afghanistan experience symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. It's a constant emotional battle some veterans cope with through the help of a service dog. But the NEWS CENTER's Trishna Begam has discovered the dogs are not being covered by the Department of Veterans Affairs (V.A.).
Mike, who did not want us to use his last name, joined the Marines and went to fight in the first Gulf War during Desert Shield and Desert Storm. He later joined the Department of Defense as a Para Military specialist to fight the War on Terror. He found himself in countries like India, Pakistan and Iraq. When he returned home in 2005, like so many others, he came back with PTSD.
We found the retired U.S. Marine Corporal Mike in the one spot he goes to escape. “It's indescribable. It's so frightening those feelings like you're right back there,” Mike explained.
It's during these solitary moments he relives the nightmares and opens the wounds no one else can see.
“Feeling under attack, you don't see the enemy you have a feel they are coming in closer and closer and closer, and my gun won't fire it's jammed. It won't fire it's a feeling of panic anxiety and fear,” Mike added.
Anxiety, panic, and nightmares are now his constant companion.
“We had a time in the bunker in mop suits. It was such a closed entrapped feeling and there was a free rocket over ground attack. So I'll have dreams that are claustrophobic. Where I'm trapped in something or it's all black around me,” he said. “I had to figure out how to live in the world without medicating without drinking. That's the only way I could cope for a while.”
Then Russell, a service dog, entered his life.
“He's a mental distraction from the anxieties, from the things that might fight me for a lack of a better term, or get me on guard or on edge,” Mike said.
The non-profit group ECAD pays for the training, but once Russell goes home, his medical care, food and other expenses are paid for by Mike.
“Let's face it; the government is not a real person. The V.A. isn't a real person. It's a bunch of persons in a bureaucratic institution. But boy it would be nice if they helped a little. Whether it be with the dog food or vet bill, you know, something,” said Mike.
Last September the V.A. decided not to reimburse veterans using a service dog for PTSD because they require more proof that the dogs really help.
The V.A. issued a statement to the NEWS CENTER, saying they started a study in 2011 and 2012, both of which they claim had problems. The V.A. suspended both studies, and after finding additional service dogs, they expect the resume them later this year.
“This study is required because there is a lack of clinical evidence to support a finding of mental health service dog efficacy,” said the V.A.'s statement. “This is an important issue that could potentially impact the lives of veterans. We want to make sure we get it right”
You can read the V.A.'s statement in its entirety at the bottom of this page, below the comments section.
The study does not sit well with the Senator Chuck Schumer.
“For the Department of Justice to do this long stretched out study is really unfair,” said Sen. Schumer. “They say there is no evidence. Well, the gentleman you've been covering and thousands of others present real evidence that this works.”
Senator Schumer says he's pushing the head of the Veteran's Affairs to reexamine their policy. “Why hold almost hostage veterans who suffer from it when a service dog might help cure them,” said Schumer
The NEWS CENTER pressed Schumer on what would happen if that fails.
“If General Shinsecki doesn't speed this process up and allow it to happen, the law now allows it to happen, we may try to pass a law that mandates it,” said Schumer.
“It's going to take politicians, it's going to take people in power to look and say common sense says that a pet a k-9 helps an individual with physical and mental limitation,” Mike said.
Until then Mike plans to fight to keep Russell, because after fighting for his country, he is the only companion that can start to heal the wounds no one else can see.
“He's got a partner. It's like he's my son I'm his father the bond has become like none I've never had,” Mike said.
If you'd like to reach out or write a letter to your law maker or V.A. to urge them to change their policy, mailing addresses and emails are below:
Chuck Schumer – NY Senator (D)
Leo O'Brien Building
Albany, NY 12207
Kristen Gilibrand – NY Senator (D)
Leo W. O'Brien Federal Office Building
11A Clinton Avenue,
Albany, NY 12207
Secretary of Veterans Affairs
Department of Veterans Affairs
810 Vermont Ave NW
Washington, DC 20420
You may use this letter as a template to send:
I am writing this letter to urge Veterans Affairs to reexamine their policy which denies benefits for veterans who need service dogs to help treat their post-traumatic stress disorder. The stories from local veterans like Mike who was featured on the NEWSCENTER along with his dog Russell go to great lengths to show the impact these service dogs have on veterans struggling with PTSD. Veterans like Mike have said their lives have changed for the better because of the calming effects the service dog has.
As shown in the story Mike is now able to venture out into public to places, he is also less anxious and able to better cope with his nightmares. I understand that currently you provide reimbursement services for veterans who have physical limitations; the same coverage should be extended to veterans who have suffered from PTSD as a result of war.
Thank you for your kind consideration of my request.