U.S. Army's new service dog policy 'could be pushing more soldiers with PTSD to commit Suicide'
The U.S. Army implemented a policy in January that limits how soldiers suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and other conditions can get service dogs, and critics say it might put the lives of service members at risk.
Before January, service dogs were permitted on Army posts under the American Disabilities Act (ADA), which requires businesses to allow people with disabilities to enter with service animals.
Service dogs had frequently been prescribed by mental health professionals to help injured soldiers, the majority of whom remain active-duty, but are going through a medical retirement process.
MSNBC has reported that under the new regulations, however, dogs must now be provided only by organizations approved by Assistance Dogs International (ADI) – an umbrella organization that certifies local companies and non-profits according to its own criteria.
But since the ADI has no presence in 18 of the 50 states, soldiers who want to obtain a service dog in Louisiana or Montana, for example, are facing an uphill battle.
The policy also requires that soldiers first seek approval for a service dog from their commander, and then a panel comprised of a primary care doctor, physical therapist and mental health counselor would have to confirm their eligibility.
According to Maria Tolleson, a spokeswoman for the Army Medical Command, the agency that issued the new policy, there are currently fewer than 60 active-duty soldiers that rely on service dogs for assistance at Army bases nationwide.
The implementation of the policy was triggered by an incident involving a 6-year-old boy who was mauled to death by a service dog belonging to a soldier at Fort Campbell, Kentucky, on January 29.
The new regulations were issued the following day.
Since then, some Army posts have come up with their own policies regarding service dogs. At Fort Bliss, Texas, regulations that went into effect on April 4 state that soldiers must now exhaust all other treatment options before seeking a service dog.
They also must submit a command approval letter to the review panel in addition to other documents.
Soldiers who had service dogs before the new policy went into effect are now required to provide extensive paperwork, including a memo from a doctor listing at least three tasks that the canine can perform to assist with specific disabilities.
Army Specialist David Bandrowsky, aged 27, said that he has not yet been able to provide that document in particular as his off-post mental health counselor was not permitted to write the letter. As a result, he does not know if he will be able to keep his service dog, Benny, at Fort Bliss - a possibility that he views as catastrophic.
Benny, an 18-month-old German shepherd mix, was prescribed to Bandrowsky last fall after he was diagnosed with PTSD, a traumatic brain injury and depression stemming from his 16-month deployment in Iraq in 2008.
Benny has been taught to push Bandrowsky away from crowds, wake him if he removes a sleep apnea mask at night and nudge him into a petting session if he seems on the verge of a panic attack. The 27-year-old say he feels unsafe when his dog is not around.
The policy that could separate Benny from Bandrwosky is now under review, and representatives of the Army Medical Command met in early May to discuss the changes.
Debbie Kandoll, who runs the New Mexico-based organization M*A*S*H: Mutts Assisting Soldier Heroes, which has placed more than 40 service dogs with soldiers at Fort Bliss, has been a vocal critic of the new policy.
‘We’re talking about disabled Americans who are broken, who are on their way out of the Army and trying to put their lives back together again,’ she told MSNBC.
Under the newly adopted regulations, Kandoll’s organization, which is not affiliated with ADI, can no longer provide animals to active-duty soldiers, which they do for free, although Kandoll said she has not received complaints about her animals acting out.
Sharan Wilson, executive director of Freedom Service Dogs (FSD) of America, Inc., an ADI-affiliated service dog organization in Colorado, believes the Army policy is meant to address problems with unqualified service dog providers.
She said an official at Fort Carson, Colorado, told her that a soldier there paid $10,000 for a service dog that was a three-month-old puppy. When the soldier brought the pooch into a commander's office, it urinated on the floor.
Wilson said it takes her six to nine months to train each animal, followed by a two-week course for the owner and an observation period. The group places about 35 dogs a year at no cost to the solider, and there are currently 64 people on its waiting list.
‘These dogs are the things that are keeping these guys from committing suicide,’ she said.
Dennis Swanson, a public affairs officer at Fort Bliss, told MSNBC that no dogs have been removed from their owners so far, and the Army is working to bring all the service animals into compliance.
Former U.S. Army Captain Luis Carlos Montalvan knows all too well how important service dogs are to soldiers suffering from PTSD.
Since leaving the military in 2007 after 17 years of honorable service, including two tours of duty in Iraq that have earned him two Bronze Stars and a Purple Heart for a serious war injury, Montalvan has become an vocal advocate for wounded veterans and an authority on assistance dogs.
In 2008, he was paired through a non-profit group with a beautiful two-year golden retriever named Tuesday who has been helping him cope with his PTSD ever since. Last year, Montalvan published a book titled 'Until Tuesday: A Wounded Warrior and the Golden Retriever Who Saved Him' about his experiences on the battlefield and his life with his four-legged companion.
In a phone interview with the Daily Mail, Montalvan said he understands the Army’s desire to ensure that safety standards are met when it comes to the training of service dogs in order to prevent future incidents like the tragic mauling in Fort Campbell.
However, Montalvan said the Army’s new policy is so narrow, and it has been implemented so swiftly and with so little consideration for the soldiers’ interests that it has left many of them ‘without the means of recuperating.’
He said that now, many soldiers in need of assistance will be unable to go on base with their service dogs, and it is bound to take a huge emotional toll on them.
‘It’s inconceivable to separate a person from their assistance dog,’ Montalvan said. ‘It’s unfathomable emotionally, psychologically and, in many cases, physically.’
But some soldiers say that even beyond the new regulations, having a service dog on post often subjects them to harassment from comrades and commanders alike.
Bandrowsky said when he joins unit formations, one sergeant will whistle and bark at Benny in an effort to provoke a reaction because under Fort Bliss’ policy, if a service dog is disruptive, a commander can forbid its presence.
Specialist Blake Hilson, also at Fort Bliss, said he is routinely harassed for having his service dog, Bella, on post. Hilson, who was hurt during basic training in February of 2010, said that other soldiers have accused him of faking his injuries so he could bring his pet to work.
‘They see that as physically weak, but also mentally weak because I need a companion 24 hours a day,’ Hilson said.
Both Hilson and Bandrowsky are going through the medical retirement process, which can take more than a year. They feel the harassment may be designed to pressure them out sooner by snapping. If they are discharged dishonorably, they will lose lifetime healthcare and pension benefits.
Mr Montalvan has expressed hope that First Lady Michelle Obama, who has been working to improve the quality of life of soldiers, veterans and their families, and who is a dog owner herself, could play an important part in changing the Army's regulations regarding service dogs.
‘It’s a heartbreaking situation because the DOD (Department of Defense) was not considerate or thoughtful in the development of their existent policy,’ he said.
Source: Daily Mail