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VA leaders drag feet in push to prescribe four paws

Despite solid medical evidence indicating service dogs can improve the lives of veterans living with P.T.S.D., Veterans Affairs won't commit to covering the cost. (Source: Gray DC)
Despite solid medical evidence indicating service dogs can improve the lives of veterans living with P.T.S.D., Veterans Affairs won't commit to covering the cost. (Source: Gray DC)(GRAYDC)
Published: Feb. 20, 2020 at 1:55 PM MST
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He survived explosions and gunshots, but it was the invisible wounds of war that never healed. The U.S. Marine Corps veteran credits man's best friend for saving his life. Congress may force the V.A. to offer canine treatment to fellow veterans living with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

Buckles - a seven-year-old yellow lab -- is more than just a well-trained dog. "I think of him as my own little personal therapist," Justin Weidemann said, "you can’t take a therapist… everywhere you go, but you can take a dog with you, and I like dogs better than people."

Justin Weidemann joined the Marine Corps at the age of 17, and deployed three days after 9/11, hunting high-value targets. "We were going after the masterminds," he said.

Life-threatening, physical injuries cut his time in the Marine Corps short, but he remained a part of the War on Terror for more than a decade. In the back of his mind though, trauma festered.

Around 2012, he struggled to sleep, and would snap at people. "I knew something was off, but I didn’t know what was off," he said.

Weidemann describes those he knew who had served as understanding, but said relationships with family and friends splintered. He sought treatment for P.T.S.D. at from Veterans Affairs. Buckles came from a charity that provides service dogs to veterans in need, and Weidemann, credits his four-legged pal for opening him back up to a world he had shut out

"I would say he’s 95 percent of getting that back [my old life]," Weidemann said, "I used to be on 28 pills a day, I’m down to one as necessary per week." And, Weidemann said Buckles often knows before he does when it's time for his medicine.

It can cost non-profit charities $40,000 to raise, train, and place a service dog like Buckles. The V.A. covers the cost for some conditions, but not for veterans who suffer only from P.T.S.D. - despite solid medical evidence of the benefits for patients like Weidemann

Research by Kaiser Permanente and Purdue University suggests dogs alleviate symptoms of P.T.S.D., help veterans re-acclimate to society, lower the risk of substance abuse, and strengthen mental health.

"Anybody that’s ever had a dog understands that bond, and how it can make a huge difference," said Rep. Steve Stivers (R-Ohio).

His bill -- appropriately known as the PAWS Act -- would force the V.A. to help place dogs with veterans suffering from P.T.S.D., and create a dog therapy pilot program where patients learn to train the dogs themselves.

The Department of Veterans Affairs is studying the issue. But, after a decade of research, Stivers argues 22 veteran suicides a day speaks to the need to act.

"We need to get these veterans help as soon as possible," said Stivers.

Weidemann agrees. "There isn’t time anymore, it needs to be fast-tracked," he said, "and it should have been fast-tracked a long time ago."

Stivers bill recently passed the House by a wide-margin and is under consideration in the Senate. That's as far as previous versions of the bill ever got, but Stivers and his fellow supporters believe this year it has a chance at becoming law.

V.A. leaders declined multiple interview requests for this story.

In a statement, spokespeople highlighted a pilot program for those with P.T.S.D. and a mobility disorder. The spokesperson said more data will determine whether mental health diagnoses will be directly covered in the future.

Copyright 2020 Gray DC. All rights reserved.

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