Since 2001, over 2.5 million Americans have served in Iraq and Afghanistan. Almost 19 million veterans from all U.S. wars are still living in our nation, according to a 2015 report from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
All Americans owe an enormous debt to the warriors who have fought for us. Fewer than 1 percent of Americans are currently serving in the military. It’s up to the rest of us to take care of them and their families both while they fight and also after they return.
The recent conflicts have exposed a major threat to America’s veterans: suffering from PTSD and other mental and physical injuries, with about 20 veterans committing suicide every day. This is a huge problem not just for those coming back from war, but also for their families.
For example, I am currently training a service dog for a veteran who is 100 percent mentally disabled. His wife left him with five children, and his brother has moved into the home to help take care of everyone. Once trained, this dog will help the veteran with his medical alert for a seizure disorder, as well as his PTSD recovery.
The dog will also help this warrior’s family. His children will assist with training and care of the dog — giving them something forward-looking to focus on. They will learn valuable skills and hopefully receive the well-established benefits of the human-animal bond.
This family is just one of three for which I am currently training dogs. But so much more could be done, which is why Congress should pass the Puppies Assisting Wounded Servicemembers, or PAWS, Act — a bill with over 130 bipartisan supporters.
Under the PAWS Act, grants of $25,000 each would be provided to nonprofits that are dedicated to providing trained service dogs. Only those approved by Assistance Dogs International (ADI) would receive funding. There would be restrictions, such as having all of the service dogs pass the American Kennel Club’s Good Canine Citizen Test and the ADI Public Access Test before being permanently placed with a veteran.
While the full effects of these human-animal partnerships are still being studied, there is no doubt that many veterans have benefited from having a dog trained in service or therapy.
The training of service dogs also helps man’s best friend. I have trained and rehomed several dogs found in shelters or surrendered after their owners passed, helping them find forever families even as they provide an invaluable service to injured veterans.
No one person can help all of America’s veterans. I’m working with the Olathe-based Friends in Service to Heroes for the dogs I am currently training. This group was founded in 2013 to help veterans partner with service and therapy animals. According to Chris Benson, who is the Friends in Service to Heroes’ Treasurer as well as an Iraq veteran, “The dedication to giving service dogs to veterans is simple: it works.
“We have seen miraculous transformations with veterans who have traumatic injuries,” Chris told me. “These veterans are more happy, social and taking less medication, so this is our way of giving back. We’re not licensed psychiatrists or doctors who can cure injuries, but we can provide a loyal friend who watches out for our veterans.”
Chris and I are both dedicated to helping our veterans, and the PAWS Act is just one powerful method to do so. As we hope the new administration holds to campaign promises to improve the Department of Veterans Affairs, Congress can do its part to expand the care of veterans’ mental and physical health — and that of their families — by ensuring even more of America’s warriors are properly cared for upon their return.
Geralynn Cada is a certified professional dog trainer who specializes in helping train dogs who live with families with children.