With roughly 20 military veterans committing suicide a day, backers of a new bill hope a furry best friend can make a difference.
The Puppies Assisting Wounded Servicemembers (PAWS) Act, introduced by Rep. Ron DeSantis (R-FL) and Sen. Deb Fischer (R-NE), aims to expand access to service dogs for veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.
“A service dog gives you something to care for, something to love, something that needs food and exercise, and in that moment, when a veteran has a pistol in their mouth and is contemplating suicide — there’s somebody beside them that would miss them greatly,” said Marine veteran Cole Thomas Lyle.
“That alone is a powerful motivator to stick with us here and get back into the fray of life,” said Lyle, who recently came to Capitol Hill with his German Shepherd Kaya, and two other veterans, to advocate for the PAWS Act.
The bill would take a maximum of $10 million from the VA Office of Human Resources and Administration and put it towards a five-year pilot program to provide accredited service dog organizations with $25,000 per veteran to pair him or her up with a service dog, and pay for a lifetime of health insurance, any hardware needed, and initial travel costs.
The PAWS Act is not entirely new. DeSantis, who is an Iraq War veteran, and Fischer first introduced a version of the bill last year.
It drew bipartisan support from 126 members of the House and 11 members of the Senate. However, with some pushback from the Department of Veterans Affairs, it did not cross the finish line.
This year, with some some tweaks to the bill and a new VA Secretary, David Shulkin, DeSantis and Fischer hope to complete the mission.
“The VA had had objections, saying there wasn’t enough evidence to go down this road,” DeSantis said Wednesday during a press conference in front of the Capitol.
“But I’ll give Secretary Shulkin credit. He’s basically said, ‘Look, the evidence we have, while not as much as we would like, it all points in the right direction, that this is something that’s very good and I’m not willing to wait to get more reports in, because veterans need help now,'” he said.
Meet Kaya Lyle, Lazer and Molly, here at the Capitol to introduce the PAWS Act 2017, to expand access to service dogs for veterans: pic.twitter.com/LSsJfHYC14
— Kristina Wong (@kristina_wong) May 3, 2017
Air Force veteran Adam LeGrand said his service dog Mollie, a Golden Retriever-Labrador mix, saved his life.
“I was near the end of my rope, on massive doses of narcotics and benzodiazepines,” he said at the press conference. “I’ve been able with the help of Mollie and the encouragement of the service dog community [to] get off of a lot of those medications.”
“Now I’m a full-time college student, I’m involved with my children’s lives, and I’m off of dangerous medications,” he said.
DeSantis said in the VA, the prescription tends to be “narcotics, narcotics, narcotics.”
“While that can help some people, it definitely doesn’t help everybody,” he said. “I’ve had veterans tell me that that service dog was really the difference maker for them being able to make the most of their own lives.”
“This is a program that I think is needed,” Fischer added. “Service dogs are now available to veterans with disabilities that you can see. Physical disabilities. But you don’t have a program that provides service dogs for what I call the invisible scars of war.”
Lyle, who now works at the American Legion, said since the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, there’s been 2.69 million troops who’ve returned from deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan.
“Forty percent of those who left military service and sought help from the VA have been diagnosed with mental health, alcohol or substance abuse disorders,” he said.
“We’re not trying to give all veterans dogs, but for the ones that try the pills, that try the psychotherapies, we want them to have another option before they get to the end of their rope,” he added.
“They have served us, they have sacrificed for us,” Fischer said. “We need to accept our responsibility to meet their needs.”
DeSantis said last year’s bill only applied to 9/11 veterans, but this new bill has opened it up to veterans of all wars. It also contains a requirement that the veteran has tried other treatment unsuccessfully.
The new bill already has 55 co-sponsors — 28 Democrats and 27 Republicans — backing it in the House.
“Say we’re wrong about this — people get a dog. I mean, at the end of the day, that’s the side effect. There’s not really a big downside to this,” he said.