President Obama's Got It Wrong About Support for PTSD Veterans


I’d never have thought a humble pet columnist would be correcting the President of the United States. During the third presidential debate October 22, President Barack Obama maintained that his administration was “making sure that…our veterans are getting the care that they need when it comes to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and traumatic brain injury.”

The President fails fact checking on this issue. His statement came only weeks after the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) announced it was suspending support (equipment, veterinary care, counseling) for service dogs to be partnered with veterans returning from war with PTSD.

What’s more, the VA summarily discontinued an ongoing study (which was a directive of Congress) to better understand the impact service dogs have on veterans with PTSD and their families.

It’s hard to believe the President is unaware of the VA’s decision. If he is personally uninformed, his administration must know.

After all, when the VA made its announcement in September, Sen. Charles Schumer (D-NY) was so affronted that he quickly held a press conference. Schumer replied to my request for further comment via email: “It’s of the utmost importance that we provide our vets with every option available to treat service-related ailments. For some vets who suffer from PTSD and other mental illnesses, this means service dogs. Especially as the wars are winding down, and more and more soldiers are returning home with mental trauma, the VA must continue to allow their doctors and mental health professionals to provide benefits to veterans who need mental health service dogs.”

Mr. President, the truth is, at this moment, the VA and your administration are not supporting veterans with PTSD and traumatic brain injury, at least not those who want service dogs.

Here’s why this is such a big deal: The VA estimates that 400,000 ex-soldiers are currently being treated for PTSD, with the numbers climbing daily. The rate of divorces, substance abuse and unemployment among veterans with PTSD exceed those in the general population. Suicide rates are off the map, with 32 to 39 attempts daily (with about half as many succeeding). What’s happening is tragic and may be preventable.

According to medical professionals (including many at the VA), as well as organizations that train service dogs for veterans with PTSD, vets paired with service dogs always show improvement. Suicide rates nearly disappear. Divorce and substance abuse decline.

The number of pharmaceuticals prescribed for PTSD patients is sometimes obscene, but for those who get a service dog, this changes, too.

Ray Ganiche, of Navarre, FL, a Vietnam Army veteran, was diagnosed with PTSD and ultimately paired with a German Shepherd service dog. It wasn’t long before his nightmares and night sweats disappeared. His dog, Dazzle, awakens Navarre just as the terrifying dreams begin, and today Ganiche can sleep through the night. He requires far fewer meds than before he was teamed with Dazzle.

The same is true for Capt. Luis Carlos Montalvan, an Army intelligence officer who served in Iraq. Montalvan was injured while on duty. Today, he walks with a cane and suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder.

Montalvan says his service dog, a Golden Retriever named Tuesday, helped move him from unemployment and agoraphobia (fear of going outdoors) to a new life as the author of the top-selling book, “Until Tuesday: A Wounded Warrior and the Golden Retriever Who Saved Him” (Hyperion Books, New York, NY, 2011; $22.99).

Sen. Al Franken (D-MN) met Montalvan and Tuesday in 2011. “It’s amazing stuff,” Franken told me. “Tuesday can anticipate and fend off panic attacks. He senses Luis’ breathing patterns and perspiration and then nuzzles to calm him. He lets Luis know when it’s time for his medication, and won’t allow him not to take it. And he’ll wake Luis up if he’s experiencing a nightmare.”

There’s little doubt that service dogs make a significant difference for veterans with PTSD. Since these veterans don’t need as many meds and doctor’s appointments, taxpayers save money. What’s more, PTSD veterans might again enter the workforce, which also saves tax money, since these heroes begin contributing to society instead of depending on public aid.

What’s most important is that service dogs improve veterans’ quality of life.

The VA and the President should have their tails tucked in shame. Mr. President, until this position is reversed, the administration is not supporting soldiers returning with PTSD and brain injuries.

©Steve Dale, Tribune Media Services