Read the original article by Dana Branham at dallasnews.com here.
For Michael Wright, who served as a Navy corpsman, getting his service dog Liberty was like getting his first car.
Before Liberty came along, about a year ago, Wright spent most of his time alone in his silent apartment. After his time in Iraq, post-traumatic stress disorder made it nearly impossible for him to be in public places — he couldn’t go grocery shopping, so he’d rely on takeout and delivery.
This week, Liberty graduated from her service dog training with DFW Canines for Veterans, a nonprofit that pairs combat veterans with service animals at no cost to help them with PTSD, traumatic brain injuries and mobility issues.
Liberty’s job is to watch Wright’s back. With his black Labrador by his side, the 33-year-old from Fort Worth can go where he wants to again, and Liberty keeps him calm.
“Nothing will catch me by surprise with her watching my back,” he said. “It also almost feels like you’re more welcome. Nobody around you seems threatening.”
While he was serving, Wright said, he had “thousands and thousands” of friends so close he’d consider them brothers. But when it was over, those brothers were scattered across the country, and Wright was alone.
Without a unit and structure in their lives, veterans struggle, said Melissa Caposello, who runs DFW Canines for Veterans with her wife, Carrie. The veteran population deals with a suicide rate 1.5 times higher than that of nonveterans. Each year from 2008 to 2016, 6,000 veterans died by suicide, according to a report from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
The Caposellos’ service dog training group is meant to be a long-term program: Once dogs are trained and graduate from the program, the veterans return each week for more training and camaraderie.
“When they’re in the military, it’s so structured. When they get out, it’s no longer structured,” Caposello said. “They have all this time — so with PTSD, they fight, they drink, they can get into drugs. With a service dog, they’re trained to refocus.”
The bonds they form in the training group are powerful. Even though Ryan Henderson, an Army veteran, doesn’t have a service animal, he wanted to be part of the group.
The veterans involved with the organization also form strong bonds with their dogs. In Afghanistan, Henderson and a trained bomb-sniffing dog, a black German shepherd named Satan, were an explosive-detection team. But Henderson was hospitalized for a medical emergency during his service, and he and Satan were separated for five years.
After the family who had adopted Satan refused to give him up, Henderson sued, and eventually the family surrendered him.
Now, reunited in their home in Arlington, Satan is Henderson’s emotional support animal, and the two are a tight-knit pair — whenever Henderson is tense or upset, Satan can sense it, he said.
“A dog that’s trained, that knows you, that knows your tendencies and your quirks … that dog can alert you that you’re getting tense, you’re going to have an episode,” Henderson said. “You can love on that dog, scratch its head.”
Emotional support animals differ from service animals in that they don’t have to be trained to perform any particular task.
Service animals, according to the Americans with Disabilities Act, are defined as dogs that are individually trained to do work or perform tasks for people with disabilities. They’re working animals, not pets. Under the ADA, dogs or other animals whose job is to provide comfort or emotional support don’t qualify as service animals.
Service dogs for PTSD are treated no differently under the ADA from, say, a guide dog for a blind person.
But veterans can still face hurdles when trying to go about their lives with their service animals.
In 2016, an Army veteran who also has a service animal trained to help with PTSD sued American Airlines for barring her entrance to a flight because of her service dog, Jake. The lawsuit between American Airlines and Mississippi resident Lisa McCombs was settled this year.
Some of the confusion about where service animals can be allowed stems from how easy it can be to “fake” a service animal.
Service dog vests sell online for about $30. But under the ADA, service animals don’t need to wear particular vests, harnesses or ID tags.
A Google search for “emotional support animal” pulls up ads for “U.S. Registered Support Animal” ID cards and vests. Pet owners can even purchase doctor’s notes online that say their dogs are support animals, so they can board airplanes or live in certain apartments without paying pet fees.
Anyone who tries to pass off their pets as service animals frustrates Brandon Thomas, an Army veteran who got his service dog, 3-month-old Kaya, through DFW Canines for Veterans only a few weeks ago.
“I’m a disabled veteran, and I’m training my service animal,” Thomas said. “I need her to go out in public.”
Being medically retired from the Army put Thomas in a dark place, he said. That was harder for him to cope with than recovering from being hit by a suicide bomber in Afghanistan, he said.
“I wanted to die. I didn’t feel like I was worth anything. I was being told by the military that I was unfit for duty,” he said.
With Kaya, Thomas has a schedule and a purpose again. It’s his responsibility to take Kaya for walks, take care of her and train her.
And when she’s fully trained, she’ll be able to help him with his mobility as well as with PTSD. She’ll watch his back and know how to put herself in between him and any perceived threat. She’ll also be able to help Thomas put on his shoes and remind him to take his medications.
“When you retire and you don’t have structure and you don’t have purpose, you feel worthless a lot of the time,” he said.
Now, Kaya is like Thomas’ new commander, he said.
“Kaya gives me a reason to get up in the morning,” he said.