- - Tuesday, February 14, 2017

President Trump campaigned on promises to improve the government support and overall standard of care offered to military veterans like me. Steps to do so under his new administration must include efforts to provide more lifesaving service dogs to veterans with Post-Traumatic Stress (PTS) and Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI).

In outlining his vision for the presidency, Mr. Trump emphasized the need to better address the invisible wounds of veterans. I know firsthand that specially trained service dogs can help heal these lasting scars.

After 9/11, I deployed for three combat tours in Afghanistan and Iraq with the U.S. Marine Corps. I was shot by machine gun fire on April 9, 2003, while in direct combat right outside of Baghdad. In the months that followed, I sustained additional injuries from improvised explosive devices on our convoys, ranging from the blasts of explosives strikes on our convoys and patrols to the gunfire of countless small-arm engagements.

The physical injuries that earned me a Purple Heart would eventually heal, yet my invisible wounds — namely, PTS and TBI — continued to haunt me. I suffered from debilitating depression and anxiety, night terrors and flashbacks. I was soon spending day and night alone in my dark basement, self-medicating and contemplating suicide. At rock bottom, I was taking 32 daily medications — including a dozen or so narcotics — and drinking 18 beers a night to fall asleep. I tried everything — medication, individual and group therapy, veterans support groups — but none of the traditional treatment methods seemed to work.

A neighbor and fellow military veteran credited his PTS service dog with turning his life around when everything else failed. I was running out options, and decided to give it a shot.

I applied to a handful of service dog organizations online, where I was met with waiting lists up to three years long. But I knew I couldn’t afford to wait: If suicide didn’t kill me, my substance abuse would — it felt like it was only a matter of time. Finally, I found a nonprofit group that could pair me with a service dog in as little as seven months. It was still a long wait, but for the first time, I could see a light at the end of the tunnel.

Everything changed when I met Axel, a special German Shepherd rigorously trained to manage the symptoms of my invisible wounds. He is now at my side 24/7, helping disrupt my panic attacks and flashbacks, waking me from night terrors, and keeping me calm in high-stress situations, such as crowded shopping malls or loud intersections. Axel’s constant companionship has also enabled me to significantly curb my prescription drug intake, which is now down to only two daily medications for TBI.

There is no doubt in my mind that without Axel, I would be another veteran statistic: The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) reports that there’s an average of 20 veteran suicides every day, many resulting from PTS and TBI. Up to 20 percent of my fellow Operations Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom veterans suffer from PTS, according to VA estimates.

So how can the Trump administration help put more healing leashes into the hands of the veterans who need them now?

The long wait times for veterans seeking service dogs — spanning anywhere from 18 months to three years — stem primarily from the high rate of demand, as well as the time-consuming canine training process. As you can imagine, teaching a dog to detect and respond to the invisible wounds of war is a highly specialized and exhaustive process. It’s also expensive, costing upwards of $20,000 per dog.

At American Humane, the country’s first national humane organization, which has been supporting the U.S. military and military animals for 100 years, we are working to help get more highly trained service dogs into the hands of veterans with PTS.

Currently, the VA doesn’t cover the costs of obtaining and training service dogs for veterans with PTS and TBI. The agency does, however, help offset the same expenses for veterans who use service dogs for visual aid or mobility, offering them a $500 annual stipend.

Those of us who depend on PTS and TBI service dogs should be eligible for the same government support. The Trump administration shouldn’t delay: Veterans’ lives are at stake.

Retired U.S. Marine Corps Capt. Jason Haag is the national spokesperson for the American Humane Lois Pope LIFE Center for Military Affairs.

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