On National Purple Heart Day, observed on Aug. 7, the nation paused to honor the decorated men and women wounded in combat while serving our country. But as we reflect on these noble sacrifices, Americans should remember to also recognize the veterans grappling with the invisible wounds of war who are ineligible for the Purple Heart and often overlooked or forgotten.
I should know: I was humbled to earn the Purple Heart for the bullet wounds I sustained in direct combat, while proudly serving as a U.S. Marine Corps captain during Operation Iraqi Freedom. But while these physical injuries eventually healed, my other wounds — the symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) — continued to haunt me.
Coming home as a civilian with PTSD was challenging and confusing. I experienced crippling depression, anxiety, night terrors and debilitating flashbacks. I grew increasingly isolated, spending day and night alone in my dark basement, self-medicating and contemplating suicide. At my lowest point, I was taking 32 medications — including a dozen narcotics — and drinking three six-packs a night to fall asleep. I had no external wounds, but inside, I felt broken.
Unfortunately, stories like mine are all too common. The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) estimates that up to 20 percent of my fellow Operations Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom veterans have PTSD. Some mental health experts suggest the percentage is much higher, citing the reluctance to seek out treatment as well as a lack of awareness about the condition, as reasons why PTSD frequently remains undiagnosed in veterans.
According to a RAND Corp. study, 50 percent of those with PTSD do not seek out treatment; among those who do, only half receive “minimally adequate” care. And for others, like me, traditional treatment methods — even when administered through credible and competent providers — just don’t seem to work.
I tried everything, from individual therapy to medication to veterans support groups, but it was a German shepherd named Axel that finally turned my life around.
Like all PTSD service dogs, Axel is specially trained to detect and respond to the invisible wounds of war. He intervenes — barking or nudging me with his cold, wet nose — when I have panic attacks, night terrors and flashbacks. Now, there isn’t a moment I don’t feel safe with Axel by my side. Numerous studies confirm the efficacy of service dogs in mitigating the PTSD symptoms. One program dedicated to pairing service dogs and veterans reports that 92 percent of participants reduce their medications or stop taking them altogether within six months.
The remarkable success of such efforts and the devastating rates of veteran suicide — about 20 per day, according to new VA statistics released last month — makes improving access to PTSD service dogs an urgent priority. Presently, service dog waiting lists typically range from 18 months to three years long, primarily because demand is dwarfing supply — more than 300,000 veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan have PTSD. Teaching an animal to detect and respond to the invisible wounds of a PTSD veteran is also a highly specialized, intensive and inherently time-consuming task. And it comes with a steep price tag: Training costs upward of $20,000 per dog.
Veterans need shorter wait times and more affordable service dogs. They also deserve our recognition and respect for the lasting wounds of war, including those that are invisible.
There are nonprofit groups, including American Humane, where I serve as national director of the Lois Pope LIFE Center for Military Affairs, devoted to connecting wounded veterans with healing service dogs, free of charge. But with approximately 20 million veterans living in the United States today, organizations like ours can’t do it on our own.
Americans can help pay their respects to wounded veterans by calling on lawmakers and leaders in the private sector to make the swift pairing of vets and service dogs a priority, and supporting the nonprofit groups that already do.
• Jason Haag is a retired U.S. Marine Corps captain and national director of the Lois Pope LIFE Center for Military Affairs at American Humane Association.