During the week of July 22, the House Veterans Affairs Committee denied support of the PAWS Act of 2019, HB3103. Again. This is another blow to service members getting the PTSD treatment that some of them desperately need: a service dog. For years, K9s For Warriors, a Ponte Vedra organization, has pushed to get the PAWS (Puppies Assisting Wounded Service Members) Act passed. There is published scientific research that proves service dogs work. We are losing 20 veterans a day to suicide. What are you waiting for, members of the House Veterans Affairs Committee?
K9s For Warriors CEO, Rory Diamond, said, in response to the latest news: “For the last three years we’ve been pushing PAWS because the VA refuses to acknowledge what we all know: Service Dogs are dramatically improving the lives of disabled veterans suffering from PTSD. Most importantly, these dogs are helping keep our heroes alive. Yet, each year we go and meet with the House Veterans Affairs Committee staff, and each year they find a new way to say “No.” This past week, we sat down with the Majority and Minority staff and, again, they said “No.”No to Service Dogs for veterans with PTSD. No to our mountain of evidence that these dogs are saving lives. Instead, they told us to wait. Wait until 2020 or 2021 until after the VA completes a study to tell us what we already know. The VA has spent tens of millions of dollars and over ten years “studying” what one of the 550 K9s For Warrior graduates can tell you in ten seconds: the dogs work. We can’t afford to wait any longer. We are losing at least 20 veterans a day to suicide.”
Members of the House Veterans Affairs Committee, please look at these two photographs. Would you deny that Lily, a service dog, helped save Joe’s life? Would you deny the treatment that Blaze, a service dog, is providing for Adam? And, by the way, most of the dogs trained by K9s For Warriors as service dogs, were previously shelter dogs. Think about that.
The dogs are trained, then matched with a veteran in need. The team then goes through a training program. All of this is provided at no cost to the veteran. K9s For Warriors depends on corporate sponsorships and donations from the caring public.
THE NEW BARKERis asking its readers to please contact your local state representatives. Type in your zip code and your representatives will be displayed. Here is a sample letter you may want to consider sending to you representatives:
Hello Mr./Mrs. (representative’s name),
I’m writing to voice my support of the Puppies Assisting Wounded Service Members (PAWS) Act, H.B. 3103.
It was introduced by Congressman John Rutherford on June 5th, but was halted by the House Veterans Affairs Committee. With more than 20 veterans a day dying by suicide, it simply doesn’t make sense that the committee tasked with protecting them denies what is now proven to be a life-saving option to mitigate their PTSD: service dogs. Service dog organizations like K9s For Warriors have already scientifically proven that service dogs are highly successful in recovery of PTSD and Military Sexual Trauma, yet the VA healthcare system still refuses to recognize this. We must do more to save the lives and honor the sacrifice of our military heroes.
Service dogs help veterans heal. When they heal, their families heal, and they return to their communities as productive citizens, pursuing higher education and re-entering the workforce, rather than living in isolation, or worse, seeing suicide as the only way out. However, high quality service dogs come at a high price, one which most veterans could never afford on their own. The average cost of a service dog is $27,000.
Medication is not always the answer. The servicemen and women who voluntarily fought for our freedom should not have to suffer even more after their service because they can’t afford the treatment that is best for them. Please support this life-saving initiative that will give veterans the option of choosing a service dog to heal from their invisible wounds. Please vote “Yes.” Thank you for your time.
How deep into a soul does one have to dig to find the strength to help someone else who is standing at the edge of their life? Especially knowing that the life you are about to help has been affected, almost to the brink, by the ravages of war? Shari Duval was a volunteer for the Wounded Warrior Project out of Jacksonville, and saw firsthand the number of young men and women coming home from their tour of duty with an invisible disorder, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder or PTSD. And yet, when her son Brett, a Veteran K9 Police Officer and contractor for the Department of the Army, returned home after serving two tours in Iraq, she honestly did not know what was wrong with him. He was withdrawn, isolating himself from family and friends. As a bomb dog handler, Shari knew he had been in dangerous and deadly situations, but he was a veteran police officer, she thought to herself. “It just never dawned on me that these were signs of PTSD as a result of what he had seen in Iraq,” she said.
Thankfully, the family had the financial ability to get Brett the help he needed. During his treatment, Shari began heavily researching PTSD, and discovered the success in treating the disease through the use of service dogs. With the blessings and support from the Wounded Warriors Project, Shari created K9s for Warriors, a non-profit organization in Ponte Vedra Beach to train and provide service canines to military personnel suffering from PTSD. “They are like seeing eye dogs for the mind,” she said.
Since September 11, 2001, this country has produced 500,000 disabled warriors, and of that number, one in five is diagnosed with PTSD. One in six of those diagnosed will attempt or commit suicide. That’s over 16,000 suicides, alarming proof that war can and does cause severe brain damage. Symptoms of the disease include hostility, aggression, depression, paranoia, acrophobia, nightmares, panic attacks, poor coping skills, memory loss and lack of trust. Studies have proven that there are actual physical changes in the hippocampus and prefrontal cortex of the brain as a result of a horrific experience someone has endured, like the effects of war.
Service canines have been medically proven to aid in the recovery of warriors suffering from PTSD. The dogs are recognized by the United States Department of Justice Civil Rights Division, and qualify under the American Disability Act of 1990. “With this information, I just knew we were on to something, and wondered how many thousands more we could help through our program,” said Shari.
All of the dogs in the K9s for Warriors program are either adopted from shelters or rescue groups, or gifted by concerned citizens. Most of the dogs are mixes, with either Labrador or Golden Retriever in them. Each dog undergoes a series of tests to ensure they are not skittish, aggressive or shy. They must get along with children and other animals, and not be adversely affected by loud noises. The evaluation process is pretty standard, and is overseen by Shari’s son Brett who is now Director of K9 Operations, and Sherrie Keshner, Coordinator of K9 Operations. All of the dogs accepted must be less than two years old to try and maximize the length of time the service animal has with the warrior. Right now, there are around 15 sources across the state that the organization works with. “The groups know what kind of dog we’re looking for, and when they see a dog who might fit our criteria, they’ll give us a call,” said Shari. Naturally, they are receiving calls every day. “There is just no reason for us to purchase a dog when there are dogs available to us who can qualify for a life of service work,” she added.
Shari believes K9s for Warriors approach differs from other programs in that each warrior’s own personal needs are taken into careful consideration. This factor is imperative for a successful match-up between the warrior and the dog, resulting in a successful recovery process. “We can never begin to imagine the horrors these men and women have seen and experienced, physically, emotionally and psychologically. And, while we are very careful not to ask why or prod during their three-week stay with us, it usually comes out,” said Shari. A couple of examples she gave were much too graphic to print here. “Oftentimes, the experiences they share with us have never even been divulged to anyone else,” she told us. “We have a volunteer crisis management psychologist who is available 24/7, and almost all of the warriors have taken us up on our offer.”
The absolute favorite part of Shari’s job at K9s for Warriors is pairing the dogs with their warriors before they arrive. “I cannot sleep the night before the warriors arrive for their first day. I cannot tell you how it works, but it works. We have been able to match the dogs correctly with almost every warrior in our program.”
Case in point: “We had a warrior driving in from Texas. He got as far as Jacksonville when he had a mental breakdown. Fear took over. He couldn’t go any further. He checked into a hotel without letting us know where he was or what was going on. We couldn’t reach him. Finally, after about six hours past his scheduled time to arrive here, he called me and told me he couldn’t move. I told him he had to. Get in the car and come here, now. He was here in about 30 minutes, shaking, questioning why he agreed to do the program. I suggested we go outside and just talk for a few minutes. As we sat outside, he wouldn’t open up. When I asked him if he would like to meet his dog, he just looked at me, unable to answer. At that point, Military, a Golden Retriever, came bounding around the corner towards him. She twirled around a few times in front of him, and jumped on his lap. He hugged the dog, then started crying. Military gave Rick, an Army Ranger, his life back. He is now back with his family, and is off his medications. He’s even writing a children’s book about dogs. He is a new man because of Military, the dog. And every story here is like that.”
During the three-week program, the warriors stay in living quarters on the K9s for Warriors campus, which also houses the dog kennels. In addition to the canine and housing, the program provides training, certification, equipment, seminars, vet care and most of the food. The food is actually donated and prepared by a group of local women, Kasseroles for K9s. “We find out what they like to eat, and these magnificent women cook delicious food for the warriors the entire time they are here,” said Shari.
The scene when a new group of warriors arrives is usually the same. They come with duffel bags full of medication, and plenty of skepticism. They question the length of the program, and how the dogs are going to help them get better. They may complain about the prospect of having to get up out of bed to take the dog outside. “How the hell is that going to help me?” is often heard. Shari and her staff tell them the same thing every time: “Just give it a week.” Within 48 hours, the dog and warrior have bonded.
The warriors are expected to be up by 7 a.m. Their job is to let the other dogs, not yet in the program, out for their morning constitutional, play, give them food and fresh water and clean out their kennels. Then the warriors sit down to their own breakfast. The day’s schedule is reviewed at that time. During the group training sessions, warriors learn the skills needed to train their own canines. After a group training session they break for lunch, then head out into the community with their dogs. “We do fun things so that the warriors won’t become bored, otherwise their minds will wander off to somewhere else. They love St. Augustine, and we are so fortunate to have such a dog friendly and scenic town nearby in which to train,” said Shari.
K9s for Warriors accepts around 30 warriors for the Academy in a calendar year. “Our goal is to help these men and women return to civilian life with dignity and independence,” said Shari. They come from as far away as California and Oregon. One new applicant is coming from Hawaii. The only thing that K9s for Warriors cannot afford to provide at this time is transportation for the warriors to get to Ponte Vedra. “The Marines have a Semper Fi Fund, and they are the only branch of the military right now paying for a Marine’s travel expenses to get here,” said Shari.
The dogs are service dogs, but Shari refers to them as medical equipment. During the program, the warriors are weaned off many of their drugs. “They get back to living instead of living in a fog. And the dogs, who are now they’re walking prescriptions, have helped bring them out of that fog,” said Shari.
Here is how K9s for Warriors works. The dogs are crate trained, and remain so until they are matched with their warriors. At this point the dogs remain with their warriors within the living quarters. They are allowed to sleep with them, be by their side, never going back to their crates. They go on walks, and travel to places together in the car. The dogs now look at the warriors as the key to their newfound happiness and freedom. The next group of dogs is the one the current class is taking care of. They have a vested interest in them, wanting to know who was paired with which dog. The Canine Alumni Program at K9s for Warriors encourages alumni and new students to communicate with each other either about the program or the dogs. “There is a lot of social media correspondence,” said Shari who also encourages each applicant to contact one of the Academy’s alumni.
A preliminary report by the Department of Veterans Affairs states that benefits for service dogs will be provided to the vision, hearing and mobility impaired. But benefits will not be provided for those with Post Traumatic Stress Disease (note…it is a disease, not a disorder). This ruling will become final in 30 days.
In the spring issue of The New Barker dog magazine, we featured a story by Heidi Joy Howard on K9s for Warriors out of Ponte Vedra Beach. Today, we asked Shari Duval, president of K9s for Warriors for her thoughts on the Department of Veterans Affairs report. “The new ruling is extremely disappointing and a setback for our Veterans suffering from PTSD. Since 9/11 there are more than 500,000 disabled veterans. One in five suffers from PTSD. One in six will attempt or commit suicide. Service Dogs are medical equipment for PTSD, and should be regarded as such, the same as a wheelchair, or walker. Service canines are proven recovery aids for PTSD, often reducing the need for massive medications. Until the VA recognizes the enormity and severity of PTSD we are moving backwards, certainly not towards recovery for our veterans. The VA will pay for equine therapy, but not service dogs? This ruling will not effect K9s For Warriors efforts as we are a non-profit organization and our resource is free to our warriors. We are also in compliance with the ADI (Assistance Dogs International) .”
Also, this week in Jacksonville, veterans who were enrolled in the K9s for Warriors program were asked to leave a business in Jacksonville Beach while out on a training session. The owner of Surf and Skate Shop asked the veterans and their dogs to leave his business, claiming disruption of the business. Again, we asked Shari for her thoughts.
“The situation at the Surf and Skate Shop involving three of our warriors, and our Trainer was a very upsetting and disappointing day. My warriors felt humiliated and demeaned when asked to leave. A huge problem with those who suffer from PTSD is isolation. Service canines offer the warrior the freedom to return to civilian life with dignity and independence. Service canines give the warriors the security and confidence to step out of their comfort zone, isolation. When the Shop owner told them to leave, the warriors felt humiliated , singled out; all the symptoms they struggle with. Afterwards, we talked long and hard about what happened, and we went back as a group, together to accept the owner’s apology. We are about second chances at K9s; our shelter dogs, our broken warriors, even those who have wronged us. Giving the owner a chance to say “I’m sorry”, gave our Warriors respect. They deserve that.”
Please visit K9s for Warriors and Canine Companions for Independence Wounded Veteran Initiative (a national organization with an Orlando center). We have witnessed firsthand the good these two exemplary organizations are doing for our veterans. Again, these organizations are privately funded. They rely on donations in order to provide their services and the dogs at no charge to the veterans. Now that’s the way to support our troops.
Keep this conversation alive by sharing this blog with others. Visit the social media sites of each of these two organizations. Many of the graduates stay in touch via these networks. Send them words of encouragement.