One Veteran’s Companion — and Mission

VA won't provide service dogs for PTSD, but a bill headed to Congress could change that

Closing in on one year since President Obama declared the combat mission officially over in Afghanistan, the nation still struggles to honor and care for the military men and women scarred during the 13-year war.

For many veterans the trauma endured — from sights that cannot be unseen, loss that cannot be measured, or an experience with a side of humanity most never have to face — must be weathered alone, or at best with the help of drugs and therapy of questionable effectiveness.

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Fortunately for Afghanistan Marine Cpl. Cole Lyle, he has a companion that can do what drugs and therapy cannot — provide him purpose. His German shepherd, Kaya, is a service dog specially trained to stand at the side of veterans carrying the burden of post-traumatic stress disorder.

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Lyle, who served 400 days on deployment, was diagnosed with PTSD, primarily from the traumatic experience of volunteering at the hospital at Camp Bastion in Afghanistan’s Helmand Province. The hospital treated not only wounded American service members, but women and children maimed in the crossfire of war.

For Lyle, his companion is a literal lifesaver.

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“If I’m having a nightmare she’ll jump up in bed and wake me up,” Lyle said of Kaya. “She’s also trained to lick my hand to remind me to calm down in case I’m getting to angry or upset … to break the mental cycle.”

Nearly 140,000 American service members deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan have been diagnosed with PTSD since the 2001 launch of the war on terror, according to an August report from the Congressional Research Service.

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But the Veterans Affairs Administration does not cover service dogs for vets suffering PTSD. Instead the VA relies on anti-depressant drugs and therapies. Those prescriptions can fall tragically short of doing enough to rebuild a traumatized veteran’s sense of purpose and self-worth.

“I can say unequivocally and without contradiction that I probably wouldn’t be here if I hadn’t gotten Kaya,” Lyle said.

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Estimates in the 2012 Suicide Data Report, the most recent available, found that a staggering 22 veterans committed suicide each day of 2010. The VA has not released detailed statistics on how many veterans are taking their own lives since then, nor has it explained why it has not.

Several reports, including a 2014 study from the Citizens Commission on Human Rights International, have suggested the antidepressent drugs prescribed by the VA may be contributing to the suicide rate among veterans.

“I can say unequivocally and without contradiction that I probably wouldn’t be here if I hadn’t gotten Kaya,” Lyle said.

But Lyle was fortunate to have the support of his family in finding a service dog through a private organization.

Cole Lyle and Kaya
Cole Lyle and his service dog Kaya (Credit: @kayalyle Instagram)

Now he wants Congress to get involved to change that for his fellow veterans by getting the VA to prescribe — and cover the cost of — service dogs for military veterans diagnosed with PTSD.

The Puppies Assisting Wounded Servicemembers (PAWS) Act would expand the definition the VA has for service animals “to include dogs that assist veterans with the symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress,” according to the advocacy site Lyle created to help with his advocacy.

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“As a Naval Reserve officer, I am committed to making sure that our veterans have every possible resource to assist as they heal from the wounds of war,” said Rep. Ron DeSantis, R-Fla., whose office is helping Lyle navigate the early steps toward introducing and passing the measure. “I have heard first-hand just how valuable trained service dogs can be to our servicemen and women suffering from post-traumatic stress or brain injuries, and I am working to expand access to the care they provide.”

Lyle’s bill also includes provisions for the VA to certify service dogs trained by third-party vendors, and to reimburse veterans who live too far from a VA facility to acquire a trained dog on their own. The advocacy website Lyle created has thought through possible barriers to passage and includes FAQ’s on everything from potential cost to why the program should go through the VA.

“If someone needs empirical data to prove dogs are therapeutic, it’s likely they’ve never owned a dog at all,” Lyle said.

In 2010, Congress mandated the VA study the potential benefits of service dogs for treating PTSD, but after several delays the VA announced in March it would begin the three-year study.

“This study is rigorously designed,” director of VA Rehabilitation Research and Development Patricia Dorn said in a research program update. “The findings should give VA a solid basis for making decisions about the provision of service dogs for Veterans with PTSD.”

If successfully passed, the PAWS Act would get service dogs to veterans through the VA long before the agency completes its viability study. Congress is a slow-moving machine, but Lyle is optimistic the bill will garner widespread, bipartisan support, and pass, getting struggling veterans the companion best suited to help them.

With dozens of veterans succumbing to suicide and depression each day, Lyle doesn’t have much patience for a three-year study.

“There have been numerous white papers and lots of research done on the efficacy of service dogs as medically necessary instruments to help with the symptoms of PTS. You can also talk to any veteran who has one, and they will tell you the same,” Lyle said.

And on the study, the veteran said simply: “If someone needs empirical data to prove dogs are therapeutic, it’s likely they’ve never owned a dog at all.”

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