OPINION: Tom Purcell

Service dogs heal the trauma of war

Our botched withdrawal from Afghanistan is hard to witness, but hearing the reports of Taliban brutality is even worse.

The U.S. Sun reports that “women face having ‘fingers cut off for using nail varnish’” and that the Taliban “reportedly shot a woman dead in the street for not wearing a burqa…”

My heart aches for all Afghanis.

It especially aches for the young women who’ve flourished during the last 20 years by freely developing their minds and talents in school, but who now must submit to the Taliban’s draconian rules.

Reuters reports that the Taliban have pulled Afghani women from their banking jobs and told them to stay in their homes because, by their primitive religious laws, only men can hold such jobs.

As I monitor the unpleasant withdrawal safely in my home, I wonder how the 800,000 Americans who have fought in Afghanistan since 2001 are being affected by it.

Watching the shocking images from Kabul is far more unpleasant for veterans, according to Military News:

“Mental health experts say that the fall of Afghanistan may cause symptoms of mental health trauma to emerge. A VA story noted that news of the end of the Afghanistan mission has already led to an increase in veterans seeking help at their facilities.”

That is a worrisome trend.

According to Newsweek, approximately “four times as many active-duty personnel and veterans have died by suicide than in combat since Sept. 11, 2001.”

That grim fact comes from a June 2021 study published by the Costs of War Project that estimates that “30,177 service members and veterans of post-9/11 wars have died by suicide, compared to the 7,057 service members killed in action .…”

The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) estimates that suicide already takes the lives of nearly 20 veterans every day on average. I hope and pray that the situation in Afghanistan doesn’t result in more suicide by vets here at home.

There’s one thing the Biden administration should do about that concern immediately, according to Rory Diamond, CEO of K9s For Warriors: provide more funding for service animals for veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.

Diamond refers to the Puppies Assisting Wounded Servicemembers (PAWS) for Veterans Therapy Act, which Congress recently passed in a bipartisan manner. Diamond writes in The Hill that though historically the VA has declined to cover the cost of service dogs for veterans with PTSD, research “has yielded undeniable proof of a service dog’s ability to reduce their veteran handler’s symptoms of PTSD.”

NBC News reports that research conducted by Maggie O’Haire, an associate professor of human-animal interaction at Purdue University who works with K9s for Warriors, shows that veterans “paired with service dogs trained for PTSD had fewer suicidal behaviors and ideations within the first 18 months, compared to people with emotional support animals.”

Each PTSD service dog is trained to the specific and unique needs of each veteran.

“Training a service dog to help someone with PTSD is an immersive program that helps the veteran and dog form a bond,” NBC News said. “The dog learns to notice signs of anxiety and how to soothe its owner.”

Thurber, my yellow Labrador puppy, has given me a richer, happier life. I can only begin to imagine how a well-trained PTSD service dog could change — and save — the life of a veteran.

Hey, Joe, Congress did its job in a bipartisan manner. The PAWS Act is on your desk. Please sign it immediately.

Tom Purcell is an author and humor columnist for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. Email him at Tom@TomPurcell.com.