Iraq War veteran points to benefits of service dogs

The Department of Veterans Affairs recently suspended a study that could have opened the door to funding service dogs for veterans with mental disorders.

Iraq War veteran Daniel Smith understands the reason for their delay but wishes more service members could receive the benefit of a service dog like his.

Before Smith brought his black Labrador, Jefferson, home in early 2011, he could barely make it through the crowds of Walmart without a panic attack.

Four months later, Smith was confidently walking through New York’s Grand Central Station with Jefferson by his side.

“I would have never thought a dog could help me like that,” Smith said.

From the VA’s perspective, Jefferson is a prosthetic because he assists in Smith’s recovery from post-traumatic stress disorder and other injuries he suffered during his deployment to Iraq in 2005. The VA pays for dogs to assist veterans with physical disabilities, including vision and hearing problems. A study was commissioned in 2010 to examine the possibility of funding service dogs for veterans with PTSD, but it was suspended Sept. 5 amid concerns over the consistency of training by private kennels. The VA also says there is a lack of scientific evidence to show the dogs are capable of healing and treating PTSD. It’s unclear whether the study will resume.

Veterans across the country with service dogs are protesting the VA’s decision and providing their own anecdotal evidence.

Smith, of Beech Island, got his dog free from America’s VetDogs in 2011 because of his mobility impairments and seizures. The VA’s only involvement was signing off on the paperwork that verified his medical condition and a chaplain’s recommendation.

Smith was skeptical at first about the benefits of a service dog. A former Army ser­geant, Smith came home from Iraq in 2006 with a bad back, traumatic brain injuries and PTSD.

The tipping point came when he passed out while taking his wife a glass of water. At the time he thought his wife had hit him because the seizure was so sudden and unexpected. Soon after, his wife began searching for a way to help her husband.

In February 2011, he flew to New York to retrieve Jefferson and undergo handler training. He wasn’t even home before the heavy dog jumped on his chest one night to wake him up from a bad dream.

Smith points to other examples of Jefferson’s help. Previous flashbacks often ended in an ambulance ride and a long checkup at the hospital. Last summer, he could feel the onset of a flashback, and Jefferson sensed it, too.

The dog immediately grabbed Smith’s hat and took off running.

“Being a country boy from Texas, I don’t like anyone jacking with my hat,” Smith said, but the distraction immediately snapped him out of the flashback. “These dogs are so dadgum smart.”

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