Saving the Soul of a Soldier
A Dog Handler helps returning soldiers with PTSD reconnect with life—and ACE National Members “pitch in”
“Petting, scratching, and cuddling a dog could be as soothing to the mind and heart as deep meditation and almost as good for the soul as prayer.”
― Dean Koontz, False Memory
When Veterans first arrive at Carol Borden’s dog training facility in Williston, FL, they often say, “the medication I’m prescribed is not working for me—I need help.” Indeed, you might not expect to see former combat soldiers, all just back from fighting in the Middle East, petting dogs on a Florida farm—and healing.
Carol makes quick work of any skepticism. She opens a door in her home and encourages participants —many suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), a debilitating anxiety condition without a cure—to interact with the canines she brings into the room.
Carol spends months customizing the training for every German Shepherd on her farm to be paired for free with a Veteran. The goal is to teach each service animal how to recognize and respond to a soldier or marine’s specific PTSD treatment needs—and help them gain better control of their emotions and thoughts, and to dial back their feelings of panic or anxiety.
One of her recipients, Ray Galmiche, served in Vietnam. Though he has been stateside for years, he felt hyper vigilant and constantly looked for threats.
Carol tears up remembering the first time she introduced Ray to his service dog “Dazzle.”
“He fell on the floor as the dog licked his face. He buried his head in his fur and sobbed. His wife was crying—I was crying—he was crying. It was the first time he’d relaxed in years and felt something. He was finally ‘off duty’.”
“I’d tried medication. I’d been to the VA…nothing helped,” adds Galmiche, “Dazzle has changed my life. I am able to go out in public and interact. What most people take for granted from a social perspective, I wasn’t able to do—until now.”
The majority of Borden’s recipients have experienced multiple deployments and the death of their military ‘brothers’ or ‘sisters’.
According to the National Institute of Health, about 40% of troops spending time in combat zones experience some form of PTSD. The Veteran’s Administration cites one military suicide per day and NPR reports that July 2012 saw a jump in soldier suicide from 30 to 38, the worst month ever.
The Department of Veterans Affairs will pay service-dog benefits to veterans with vision, hearing or mobility-related injuries but not to veterans suffering PTSD.
A 67-page, final draft of rules concerning veterans in need of service dogs was published this month in the Federal Register. In justifying its decision, the VA cited “nationally established” and “widely accepted” training protocols for sight, hearing and mobility-assistance dogs and the lack of similar training protocols for PTSD service dogs.
“Until such determination can be made, VA cannot justify providing benefits for mental health service dogs,” according to a copy of the rules obtained by The Palm Beach Post.
Veterans with service dogs were baffled by the rule.
“You get doctors and people telling you that you’re not disabled enough,” said Jim Stanek, an infantryman in the U.S. Army who served three tours of combat duty in Iraq. Stanek has been diagnosed with PTSD and traumatic brain injury.
“What do I have to do? Have my leg amputated?” Stanek asked. “Is that what I need to do to get what I need to recover?”
“The VA keeps telling me I need to go on medication,” says Brian Jones, retired Army Sgt. Major who served as a Delta Force Operator in Mogadishu, Iraq and the Pablo Escobar mission. “I don’t need medication—I’ve seen what it does to combat veteran’s and it’s an insult to ply your heroes with psychotropic’s and not even acknowledge or look at what does help a soldier. Carol is an awesome trainer and I’ve witnessed first hand how these dogs change lives.”
Service dogs are individually trained to perform tasks for a specific person. Some of the tasks performed to assist veterans with PTSD include surveying darkened rooms, turning on lights, re-orienting their owner during nightmares or flashbacks, navigating through crowds, sensing anxiety, enforcing boundaries for personal space and retrieving help if needed.
Under the VA rule, all of Borden’s federal funding for her facility is stripped. The federal decision left some veterans demoralized and in tears. Benefits will no longer cover travel expenses for obtaining a service dog, license tags, food, grooming, dental cleanings, nail trimming, boarding, veterinary services or pet medications.
Among the most controversial provisions of the new rule: the VA will only provide coverage if the service dog and veteran have successfully completed a training program accredited by Assistance Dogs International or the International Guide Dog Federation—leading to accusations of favoritism only for facilities who pay large sums of money to ADI or IGDF.
Additionally, John Ensminger, a New York attorney and author of Service and Therapy Dogs in America, expressed written concern to the VA for the accreditation requirement and whether there were enough ADI and IGDF accredited training programs to meet the growing demand for service dogs in the military. “The ADI approach is destined to produce a very small number of dogs,” Ensminger said.
The VA defended its position, saying it estimated that only 100 veterans with properly accredited training would apply for mental health service dog benefits this year. Despite the new rule Ensminger is concerned that medications will trump service dogs when it comes to treating PTSD.
“What it may mean in practice is, if we can tranquilize you to a certain level with psychotropic medications, then you don’t need a dog,” Ensminger said. “I think that is wrong.”
So do many ACE National Members who also served in our military.
“The first response is to ‘dope up’ a soldier,” says Randy Beasley, operator of Rachel’s and former Vietnam Vet who served in special ops in 1970’s Cambodia. “It’s an insult to our combat wounded veterans and Marines to subject them to the exact same treatment program as someone who is unfit for service, has never seen combat, but has a drug addiction or mental illness.”
Beasley stepped up to the plate with Joey Bien, of Treasure’s and David “Slim” Baucom of MAL Entertainment to bring Borden, Galmiche and Dazzle to the 20th ED Publications Gentlemen’s Club Expo and ask ACE National Members for help.
Rick Hill, active FL SEA member and owner of four clubs in Florida, walked up to Borden at the tradeshow and handed her a check for $5,000. She cried.
“Everyone at ACE has been so wonderful,” she said. “Maybe there is some hope after all.”
“She deserves it,” said Hill. “And so do our Veterans. We plan to do more and we challenge other clubs across the U.S. to adopt one of her dogs or buy something she needs for the facility. It’s a good charity, fully tax-deductible, and if she’s willing to stand behind our rights, we should support hers and those of our veterans.”
“This is what I was born to do,” adds Borden, who is determined to pair all 80 of her dogs with deserving Veterans. “There’s transparency with everything we do here—and each time a dog is paired with a soldier, we give him or her peace—and the ability to walk back into the world better able to handle life’s challenges.”
If you or a loved one would like to learn more about the program or your club would like to adopt a dog for a soldier, please contact:
Founder & Executive Director
Guardian Angels Medical Service Dogs, Inc.
A 501(c)(3) non-profit organization