At what point is anecdotal evidence so overwhelming that it matches or exceeds scientific discoveries?
Carol Borden, executive director and founder of Guardian Angels Medical Service Dogs of Williston, FL, says her non-profit has paired about two dozen service dogs with military veterans with post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) since 2010. She says that in every instance the veteran has benefited. Other organizations echo the same experiences.
Ray Galmiche, 65, of Navarre, FL, served two and a half tours of duty in Vietnam. While in the combat zone, his PTSD symptoms were minimal, but they became increasing apparent after his retirement from the Army after 20 years of service. Among them were extreme nightmares accompanied by night sweats. Galmiche often suffered from sleep deprivation. When going out in public, which he rarely mustered the will to do, Galmiche felt overwhelmed and suffered panic attacks.
Even the simple act of driving a car became a challenge, and potentially dangerous. Galmiche's wife realized this after he had a flashback while at the wheel. Ray had no idea where he was. His mind was on a jungle battlefield, re-living a firefight from years before. Luckily, no one was injured.
Galmiche concedes that he began to push away from his family. "I was basically giving up," he says. "I just couldn't stand it anymore."
In desperation, not wanting to lose her husband, Ray's wife pursued partnering him with a service dog. "I didn't know or understand what a dog might to do help," says Galmiche. "Besides, I didn't think I deserved a dog."
Ray was paired with a German Shepherd dog named Dazzle. He tried to push the pup away. But some dogs just don't take no for an answer and Dazzle was determined to be Galmiche's best friend. "I just didn't have it in me, but Dazzle loved me anyway. I've never experienced anything like that," he recalls.
Galmiche didn't understand why the nightmares and night sweats disappeared, and he was simultaneously annoyed that Dazzle often awakened him in the middle of the night. He soon realized the dog wasn't being a pest; he was awakening Galmiche just as the horrible dreams began. "Maybe it's my body chemistry, but Dazzle doesn't allow me to have those nightmares," Galmiche said. Today, Ray can sleep through the night.
Although Galmiche still has panic attacks, they're more infrequent and less severe. "I know Dazzle has my back," he says. "And if I get anxious, he knows it. He puts his head on my leg and I pet him. I think he enjoys it. And I begin to relax."
Galmiche says he sometimes thinks about a friend also diagnosed with PTSD who committed suicide. "If he'd had a (service) dog, maybe he would be alive today," he says. "I wish the VA would have suggested a dog years ago. I don't know what would have happened to me if it wasn't for Dazzle." Galmiche adds that it's not too melodramatic to say that the service dog saved his life.
Galmiche is hardly alone. The stats are overwhelming: There are 400,000 ex-soldiers currently in treatment for PTSD, according to the VA (U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs), and among that population, rates of divorce, substance abuse and unemployment exceed those in the general population. Their suicide rate is off the map, with 32 to 39 attempts daily and about half that many succeeding.
Anecdotal evidence suggests a service dog dramatically lowers the suicide rate, even divorce numbers and chances of substance abuse among veterans with PTSD. With a four-legged partner, veterans don't require as many (if any) drugs for symptoms related to PTSD. And veterans are able to find jobs. Most importantly, all this improves quality of life for veterans. There's a significant savings to taxpayers.
Aware of this evidence, some members of Congress tasked the VA to demonstrate scientifically the effectiveness of pairing veterans with PTSD and their families with service dogs. Fewer than two dozen dogs were enrolled in the study (nowhere near the 230 dogs recommended for the research).
Recently, the study was abruptly suspended because of reported dog bites and a health problem with one dog, leaving members of Congress and organizations that train PTSD service dogs mystified. What's more, the VA announced recently that it will no longer support service dogs paired with veterans diagnosed with PTSD (and instead only support dogs partnered with veterans with visible disabilities).
There's little doubt more scientific study would be helpful. Meanwhile, as Sen. Charles Schumer (D-NY) pointed out in an email to this reporter, as the wars wind down, more soldiers are returning home diagnosed with PSTD than ever before.
To ignore an option that's clearly helpful to many soldiers is, in fact, at odds with the VA's own mission: "To serve America's veterans and their families with dignity and compassion and to be their principal advocate in ensuring that they receive the care, support, and recognition earned in service to this Nation."
©Steve Dale, Tribune Media Services