As Americans observe Veterans Day this year, it’s important to be mindful of the challenges facing former military members. The wounds of war—both seen and unseen—should be top of mind. Beyond simply recognizing the struggles, we should also recommit ourselves to doing something about it. And for returning military heroes facing the invisible scars of battle—notably Post-Traumatic Stress and Traumatic Brain Injury—a valuable medicine is often four legs and a wagging tail.
According to the Department of Veterans Affairs, seven percent of former U.S. service members experience Post-Traumatic Stress at some point in their lives. Alarmingly, that figure balloons to up to nearly one-third of veterans who served during Operation Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom. Combat isn’t the only cause. The condition can arise from other service-related trauma, including training accidents, military sexual trauma, and natural disasters.
Left unaddressed, these types of mental health conditions can lead to the unthinkable. In a particularly sobering fact, more veterans have died from suicide than from combat since September 11, 2001. In the face of this alarming crisis, service dogs have emerged as a beacon of hope.
We’re no strangers to the value that dogs can provide on the battlefield. The military deploys hundreds of pups to theaters of war to detect bombs, help in search and rescue operations, and track enemy combatants.
But beyond aiding U.S. and allied military operations directly, a growing body of research now supports something that we’ve all suspected to be true: service dogs can play an essential role in helping our veterans recover once they’ve returned from the battlefield. In addition to providing companionship and support, these remarkable animals are extensively trained to perform specific tasks tailored to their handler’s individual needs.
For example, veterans with Post-Traumatic Stress often experience intense flashbacks, which can trigger emotional and physical reactions such as panic attacks, uncontrollable shaking, and heart palpitations. Service dogs can be trained to identify and then interrupt these flashbacks by barking, licking, or sitting on or next to the veteran. They can even learn to anticipate an oncoming flashback or panic attack by detecting signs like increased heart rate—stopping an episode before it even begins.
Caring for a service dog can also provide veterans a sense of purpose and accomplishment, both of which reduce symptoms of depression. Dogs facilitate social interaction for individuals who might otherwise feel isolated, and even just taking a dog for a walk can help improve mood as well as foster a clarifying sense of structure for dog owners.
That’s why American Humane operates a program called Pups4Patriots. The initiative finds dogs in search of forever homes and trains them to be lifesaving service animals for veterans suffering from the aftershocks of military service—all free of charge thanks to program sponsors. Without this help, getting a well-trained service dog can cost veterans upwards of $30,000—a process that can take months or even years.
But we can’t do it alone. Fortunately, outside of private efforts, there is a growing coalition of policymakers in Washington that are recognizing the unique benefits that service dogs can provide to veterans.
In 2021, Congress passed—and President Biden signed into law—the Puppies Assisting Wounded Service Members (PAWS) for Veterans Therapy Act. The legislation gives veterans struggling with Post-Traumatic Stress the opportunity to take advantage of a service dog referral program and launch a pilot initiative to train more animals.
And earlier this year, a bill was introduced to build off this progress. Called the Service Dogs Assisting Veterans (SAVES) Act, the bipartisan legislation would establish a grant program to help fund private groups that train and pair former service members with service dogs.
As we honor our veterans, let’s recommit ourselves to sending those who suffer from Post-Traumatic Stress or Traumatic Brain Injury some four-legged reinforcements. By supporting a mix of federal legislation, patriotic nonprofits, and the love of a good dog, we can help ensure veterans struggling with mental health issues don’t walk alone and will always have a furry best friend by their side.
This article was originally published by RealClearDefense and made available via RealClearWire.
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