Veterans Need Lifesaving Companions

Introducing the PAWS Act to give our men and women new hope through service dogs

From performing sentry duties to identifying the existence of improvised explosive devices to accompanying Navy SEALs on the raid that killed Osama bin Laden, dogs have performed important duties for our military and are widely appreciated for their efforts.

The government has not, though, fully utilized “man’s best friend” in one area of increasing importance: helping veterans who suffer from post-traumatic stress (PTS).

Veterans from America’s post-9/11 military conflicts have returned home with a variety of battle wounds, including wounds invisible to the naked eye — which nevertheless can exact a debilitating toll on even the bravest warrior. The battle against post-traumatic stress has come a long way in recent years, but there is still more that can be done. The VA, in particular, needs to harness the use of service dogs in support of veterans that suffer from PTS.

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The experience of former Marine Corporal Cole Thomas Lyle shows that using service dogs in the fight against PTS can yield dividends. Upon returning from Afghanistan, Cole had trouble sleeping and suffered from recurrent nightmares; a post-deployment health assessment found that he needed help for depression, post-traumatic stress, and anxiety.

The VA recommended Cole for counseling and prescribed him a flurry of medications. But within a few years Cole’s personal life had deteriorated, the medication wasn’t improving things, and two of his friends had committed suicide, in part due to their symptoms being exacerbated by opioids.

Cole was in the doldrums and decided to quit the drugs cold turkey. He went to the VA to see if he could get a service dog, yet faced a problem: The VA provides service dogs for physical disabilities but not for post-traumatic stress. Through his family, Cole was able to obtain the resources necessary to acquire a German Shepherd named Kaya and have her certified through an accredited trainer. But many veterans do not have access to such resources.

Since acquiring a service dog, Cole has seen a remarkable turnaround in his life: He attends college and has become an advocate for expanding access to service dogs and for reducing veteran suicides.

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Medication and therapy may work for some veterans but others need a different form of treatment. Accordingly, I have introduced the Puppies Assisting Wounded Servicemembers (PAWS) Act so that the VA can match veterans suffering from severe post-traumatic stress with certified service dogs. This bill is a sensible reform that can make a big difference for our veterans. It gives service dogs the opportunity to do for our veterans what they have done for the active duty military: save lives.

Rep. Ron DeSantis represents the 6th congressional district of Florida and is currently a candidate for the U.S. Senate seat being vacated by Sen. Marco Rubio.

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