NAMI Montana takes on Army policy on service dogs

Billings Gazette

by Cindy Uken

NAMI Montana is championing a national movement aimed at getting the U.S. Army to change its relatively new policy limiting the ability of severely injured soldiers to access psychiatric service dogs.

Matt Kuntz, executive director of the state chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, has started a national petition drive asking Secretary of the Army John McHugh to revise the policy. As of Monday, more than 500 people have signed the petition.

“It’s such a bone-headed issue,” Kuntz said.

The Army’s controversial policy comes at a time when more U.S. soldiers have started to use psychiatric service dogs to help them cope with the symptoms of post traumatic stress disorder and mild traumatic brain injury after returning from Iraq and Afghanistan.

The U.S. Department of Veterans’ Affairs treats 1.3 million veterans for mental health problems, including an estimated 400,000 who served in Iraq and Afghanistan. There are 10,000 new patients with PTSD checking into hospitals every three months, according to the VA.

Many of these veterans have turned to alternative treatments. One of the most powerful treatments is a service dog. Congress has even ordered the Department of Veterans Affairs to study the effectiveness of service dogs as PTSD therapy.

“These dogs can be powerful tools in helping to pull the soldiers out of flashbacks and terrifying nightmares,” Kuntz said. “For some soldiers, access to their service dogs may be the difference between life and death by suicide.”

Natasha Houston, a licensed clinical worker certified to treat PTSD and military sexual trauma, said there is substantial new research that addresses the positive interactions between animals, typically service dogs, and veterans with PTSD. The research indicates similar findings when veterans are farming, gardening and working with plants.

“The basic premise is that the dog or plant only gives back positive interactions to the veterans regardless of how they are behaving,” said Houston, who worked at the Billings Vet Center and has been tapped by the U.S. Navy. “These positive messages in turn allow the space for the veteran to start trusting again. It is incredible to watch.”

The issue of soldiers battling PTSD is personal for Kuntz. He lost his step-brother five years ago to a suicide that was triggered by PTSD he suffered while serving in Iraq. Kuntz launched the petition drive after Maj. James LaCaria, who is stationed at Fort Bliss, Texas, contacted Kuntz when the Army refused to let him keep his service dog in the barracks. Kuntz and LaCaria became friends while attending West Point.

“At the moment, I thought he was going to commit suicide,” Kuntz said of his longtime friend.

LaCaria, 36, who suffers from PTSD, traumatic brain injury, hearing loss and a back injury, relies on Kaeci, a 5-year-old Australian blue heeler and kelpi mix. He has had Kaeci about a year and got her on the advice of his psychiatrist after being admitted to an in-patient psychiatric ward several times. He is in the process of retiring from the Army for medical reasons.

LaCaria has won the right to live in a hotel — with Kaeci — on the Army base, but at his own expense, about $70 per night.

The dog’s calming presence has helped LaCaria lower his blood pressure, wean him from anxiety medications and stave off panic attacks.

“If I kneel, it’s her sign to come to me so I can pet her and calm down,” LaCaria said. “She’s stopped me from hurting myself. I have a tendency to cut myself, burn myself with a candle lighter and punch myself until my eyes are black and blue.”

While it’s understandable for the military to ensure that only severely inured soldiers utilize service dogs, and that the service dogs are property trained, the new policy goes too far, Kuntz said.

The petition at asks the policy be revised to:

Make it clear that soldiers do not need to exhaust all other treatment methods before they can qualify for a service dog.

Ensure that soldiers with service dogs can have living quarters where they can access their service dogs, and

Broaden the definition of an accredited service animal provider beyond Assistance Dogs International, because ADI does not have certifying organizations near every Army base.

Debbie Kandoll, founder of Mutts Assisting Soldier Heroes, trains and matches her dogs with soldiers at Fort Bliss. She is responsible for the match between LaCaria and Kaeci.

“These soldiers view their dogs as their battle buddies,” Kandoll said. “A battle buddy is one who saves your life. The sad truth is that these men will never be whole again. These dogs are helping take them to a new normal.”

Kandoll has met with top Army officials to protest the new policy. Her dogs, which are not affiliated with ADI, have been banned from certain Army posts, including Fort Bliss. She pointed out that beginning last year, in accordance with the Americans with Disabilities Act, a dog that is used to “ground” a person with a psychiatric disorder such as PTSD, qualifies as a service animal.

The complicated policy, which is about six months old, has also come under fire from U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., a member of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee. Billions of dollars of taxpayer money have been invested in mental care, education, outreach initiatives and suicide-prevention programs to help soldiers who suffer from PTSD and traumatic brain injury. But it’s not enough, Tester said in a letter of John McHugh, secretary of the Army.

“Fostering more opportunities for service members to work with service dogs is an additional step the Army should encourage,” Tester said.

Robert Cain, with the U.S. Army Public Affairs Office, said Monday that Army officials were reviewing the policy but declined to elaborate.