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Veterans First … and Their Dogs, Too

Congress and the VA have let politics and red tape interfere with two important veterans assistance programs for jobs and mental health.

Part of the Series

In May, I wrote a column called “People First … and Dogs, Too.” It was about how the organization in the Pentagon that was responsible for defeating IEDs (Improvised Explosive Devices, the number-one killer of our troops in Iraq and Afghanistan) had spent an astonishing $18 billion on gee-whiz, high-tech devices that could only detect IEDs half of the time, while finding that well-trained dogs and their handlers could find IEDs about 80 percent of the time in a program that cost around $9 million. It was a classic case of the Pentagon being enamored with expensive, high-tech weapons when they should have been putting their people first.

Now we have similar misfires in the Veterans Administration (VA) with two situations of failing to put our military people first. One was a veterans’ jobs bill, and the other was a VA program to help troops with post-traumatic stress disorder (PSTD) that promises to help reduce the pain, suffering and suicide rate of our veterans. The Congress was responsible for one failure, and the VA was responsible for the second. One failure was politics and the other was red tape. Neither program was very expensive in VA and Pentagon budget terms, and the failures show that our military people don’t come first in the Congress or even the VA.

One of the disgraces that took place last week was the fault of the Senate, in this case by a majority of the Republicans, who prevented a new Veterans Job Corps (VJC) and the extension of a popular jobs assistance program called Transition Assistance Program (TAP) from being passed before both houses of Congress fled town to get re-elected.

Here is how the decidedly nonpartisan Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA) outlined the bill:

  • Establishes a veteran jobs corps to hire veterans as firefighters and police officers and for positions in conservation and public works.
  • Makes TAP available off base at a number of locations to assess feasibility of extending the program.
  • Requires states to take into account military training when issuing licenses and credentials.
  • Requires the head of each federal agency to develop a plan as to how they will hire at least 10,000 veterans over the next five years.
  • Improves opportunities for veterans owned small businesses to obtain government contracts.

Although much of the bill was sent over to the Congress by the White House and introduced by Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Florida), Republican senators worked on variations of the bill language and how to pay for it. It was assumed by the backers of the bill that all the budget and technical hurdles had been met.

But several Republican senators took out the long knives for the bill and it could not pass a procedure vote. They claimed that it did not follow Senate technical rules while the Democrats and a few Republicans claimed that it did. The bottom line was that the bill was killed with no chance of it getting passed this year.

Solutions - Making Government Work

But the real death knell to this bill went way beyond technicalities into raw politics. President Obama had suggested the VJC during his most recent State of the Union speech, and the idea of having rules changed so that veterans’ skills – such as their experience as paramedics – would be recognized by various state agencies became part of one of his campaign stump speeches. With the minority leader of the Senate declaring that his goal was to make Obama a one-term president, raw politics intervened, and the veterans got screwed. It wasn’t like this program was outrageously expensive: the bill was for around $1 billion out of a VA budget of $125 billion.

IAVA responded in angry surprise:

“This Congress let partisan bickering stand in the way of putting thousands of America’s heroes back to work. Lowering veteran unemployment is something both parties should be able to agree on – even in an election year,” said IAVA Founder and Chief Executive Officer Paul Rieckhoff. “Election politics should never stand in the way of creating job opportunities for our nation’s veterans, especially with an official 10.9% unemployment rate. We hope constituents, veterans and their families across the country will hold the Senate accountable for this failure.

“The blockage of the Veterans Job Corps Act, a bipartisan effort … should outrage all Americans. This bill was smart bipartisan policy that would put veterans back into service for their communities as policemen, firefighters and first responders. The result of today’s vote creates tremendous doubt that this Congress will be able to pass any additional veterans legislation in 2012. Iraq and Afghanistan veterans should not have to wait until 2013 for critical support from Congress.”

In addition to creating jobs for veterans as police officers, firefighters, first responders, and restorative conservationists, the Veterans Job Corps Act would have also extended the critical Transition Assistance Program (TAP). TAP provides employment, education and entrepreneurship advice for troops separating from the service, and to veterans and their spouses after they’ve left the military. The VJC would also require states to consider military training and experience in granting credentials and licensure for EMTs, nursing assistants and commercial driver’s licenses.

This was another case in which politicians preached to the public that they want “the best for our boys” but then block legislation once the troops come home. Perhaps after the silly season of the election, there will be more attempts to help expand veteran job help; until then, they are on their own.

The second disgrace was a self-inflicted wound by the VA. With an average of 18 post-9/11 veterans committing suicide each month and returning troops facing nightmares, social disassociation and other mental problems associated with PTSD, the VA’s budget for mental health increased this year to $5.2 billion to concentrate on these problems. It isn’t surprising that we have such a high rate of these illnesses considering that many of these troops were asked to do multiple tours, with some troops returning to war up to five or six times. Many don’t remember that during the Vietnam War, drafted troops were only required to do one tour of duty and had to volunteer to go back for a second tour, yet we still had traumatized troops to deal with after that war.

It was discovered by veterans and service-dog groups that dogs had a profound effect on many who returned with PTSD. Numerous nonprofit service-dog groups sprung up to train dogs to help veterans with PTSD. Some groups had the veteran help train the dog as part of his or her therapy; other groups taught the dogs to wake up the veteran when they had traumatic nightmares; others found that traumatized veterans could pet a dog even before they could hug their kids; and some found that the fear and jitters, sometimes called hypervigilance, stopped when they knew that the dog would alert them to anyone coming up on them. (I can understand that feeling even without having been to war, since, having lived with dogs my whole life, I could not figure out why I had profound insomnia when I slept in an office for months, until I realized that I had an innate fear of someone sneaking in with no dog to alert me.)

These groups were flooded with requests for dogs. Some groups had up to 600 veterans on their waiting lists. There was a lot of press on the good effects of these dogs, including in Smithsonian Magazine.

The Congress told the VA to start a study to verify and quantify how dogs can help with PTSD, and then told them to start getting the dogs to the veterans even before the study verified the many anecdotal stories.

The VA has all types of rules on seeing-eye and service dogs for veterans, but mainly, it would have these nonprofit dog groups give the dogs to the veterans while the VA covered any veterinarian bills for the dogs. The VA also gave out some contracts to some dog groups to start training dogs to help veterans with PTSD. Some complications developed with the care of the dogs, and there were a few problems with aggressive dogs.

So, the VA suspended the study program with only 17 dogs placed with veterans in the study, and it stopped the placement of dogs to troops with mental illness. According to a story on ABC News:

The Department of Veterans Affairs will no longer cover the cost of service dogs assigned to people with mental disabilities such as post-traumatic stress disorder, according to the Federal Register.

The VA laid out a long list of rules and regulations concerning veterans in need of service dogs on the website Wednesday. There is not enough evidence to support the medical need for the veterans suffering from PTSD, according to the new rules.

“Although we do not disagree with some commenters’ subjective accounts that mental health service dogs have improved the quality of their lives, VA has not yet been able to determine that these dogs provide a medical benefit to veterans with mental illness,” the VA said.

The new rule takes effect Oct. 5.

The VA plans to study the situation.

I am all for government contract oversight and making sure that the animals are safe and well, but this is nonsensical, especially since I know from experience how long it will take to study, staff and channel any bureaucratic problems. The VA mainly covers the veterinarian costs for these dogs, a small amount of the $5.2 billion for mental health. There are many other groups out there training dogs and donating them to veterans that would welcome the financial help to expand their already-in-place efforts.

This is red tape that needs to be cut since the amount of money is very small, and there are already groups desperately trying to fill the waiting lists for these veterans. The VA should step in with a special program to get dogs to veterans who want them. Studies are fine, but since this is not a drug with potentially dangerous side effects, why would the VA suspend such an effort with such a high veteran suicide rate? How many months, or even years, of delay will there be at 18 suicides a month? Even losing one veteran after he or she survived war is one too many.

Ironically, on September 19, the Department of Defense and the VA announced that they will fund a $100 million PTSD and TBI (Traumatic Brain Injury) study. According to the VA announcement, “At VA, ensuring that our Veterans receive quality care is our highest priority,” said Secretary Eric K. Shinseki. “Investing in innovative research that will lead to treatments for PTSD and TBI is critical to providing the care our Veterans have earned and deserve.”

This is welcome news for all of our troops returning with these injuries, but Secretary Shinseki should step up with his discretionary funds and his ability to cut through the red tape to fund and support dogs for every veteran who wants them. It could be done if the will is there, and it is too important to wait. According to the Army Times:

Vietnam veteran Wyman Helms credits Diva, a Belgian Malinois he received from Guardian Angels through the VA program, with “saving his life.”

“The nightmares have stopped, the flashbacks have stopped, the stress levels are down,” Helms said. “I think they are stupid if they stop this program.”

Veterans have suffered two blows to their needs in the past month. The jobs program will probably have to wait until a new president is elected and election political points aren’t being made. However, the great need for the PTSD dogs is a VA self-inflicted wound that could be solved now if enough people would put pressure on Secretary Shinseki. There should be a quick, nonbureaucratic fix for such a low-cost and low-risk solution to this problem. The clock is ticking on the mental health of our veterans, and the government can move fast – if it has the will.

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