The Army Medical Command’s policy with regard to service dogs, announced on January 30, 2012, stated a goal that, to the extent possible, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) would apply to Army facilities and operations. Interviews with Soldiers at Fort Bliss who have service dogs demonstrate that the opposite has been the case. Before word of the new policy reached the post, Soldiers had been allowed by individual commanders, on a case-by-case basis, to keep their dogs in barracks, have them near during certain work assignments, take them into the Post Exchange (PX), and stay with them during most hospital visits—in short, to use the service dogs as they are intended and as the ADA regulations conceive of them being used.
Now, under the new policy as implemented at Fort Bliss, the dogs are being prohibited access to barracks and most places on the post, and thereby prevented from performing their functions for Soldiers who often depend on them just to be able to go out in public. Fort Bliss has also imposed requirements that substantially lengthen the time before a Soldier can acquire a service dog, perhaps up to a year, assuming that a dog can even be made available, a period that a potentially suicidal Soldier may not survive. The profile of an acceptable dog that the Army has adopted follows an ill-advised model first created by the Veterans Administration, which does not just misunderstand the ADA and the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, but entirely contradicts the logic of those Acts.
There are 48 Soldiers with service dogs at Fort Bliss, none of which currently satisfy the Army policy and all of which are being excluded from parts of their master’s lives. Many more dogs would be present were those soldiers wanting dogs allowed to get them, but the discouraging practices implemented at the post are keeping the number from getting higher. Soldiers are suffering, unnecessarily.
Why Does the Army Want a Restrictive Policy?
The actions taken by the Army must be seen in the larger context of dealing with massive levels of post-traumatic stress disorder and other physical and psychological injuries resulting from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Faced with thousands of Soldiers returning from combat tours—often multiple tours—in countries where the relentless tension of war takes a heavy toll, the Army healthcare system has been increasingly overwhelmed. Left to deal with the manifestations of PTSD and other mental conditions on their own, some Soldiers have begun drinking, using drugs, and cracking under the pressure, sometimes with tragic tolls on themselves and those close to them.
The Army’s favored method, according to many Soldiers, often appears to be to prescribe massive amounts of prescription drugs, coupled with occasional therapy sessions. When Soldiers are paired with service dogs, their dependence on drugs is often drastically reduced as they find some semblance of normalcy and even return to performing useful tasks. That this transition does not come through a therapeutic regimen that has been rigorously studied in perfectly controlled tests has always been a difficult issue for psychiatrists and psychologists, and some of the problem may come from an Army medical corps that is inexperienced in working service animals into an overall concept of how to approach PTSD cases. Some doctors apparently feel that Army hospitals are being overrun by service dogs. Perhaps a post commander or two saw a few too many dogs pass his view of the lawns outside his window and determined that not all Soldiers were picking up poop.
Developments at Fort Bliss
Once having settled on paying lip service to the ADA while instituting a program that contradicts ADA philosophy and mandates, at least two posts—Fort Bliss and Fort Campbell—took the Army Medical Command policy and expanded its coverage post-wide. At Fort Bliss the enforcement of the policy, which was formally implemented on April 4, 2012, has become draconian.
Some Ft. Bliss Soldiers suffering from PTSD were given the choice of paying for off-post housing so they could keep their dogs, or living in barracks where dogs were not allowed. Soldiers are no longer permitted to keep their dogs with them at work, and some are being ordered to accompany their units on field training exercises lasting several days without their service dogs. These FTXs include combat training, with situations simulating battle conditions similar to those that caused PTSD in the first place. Some were told to attend therapy sessions at hospitals that did not allow service dogs despite the availability of other facilities that do allow service animals. Treatment regimens were in some cases cut from five to three days a week, making Soldiers with PTSD available for duties at their units two or more days a week. Those duties often involve training where dogs are not permitted and conditions which are likely to exacerbate PTSD reactions.
Soldiers and others believe commanders are deliberately taking these actions to increase the likelihood that Soldiers with PTSD will speak disrespectfully, act out in frustration, refuse orders, or otherwise provide an excuse to discharge them for violating the Uniform Code of Military Justice, rather than allowing them to complete the Medical Evaluation Board process and satisfy the requirements for a medical discharge. Whether such practices reflect informal policy mandated at some level, or whether it is just the way some officers in management think, is hard to say, but the effect has a financial advantage to the Army in that a discharge for misconduct or failure to meet standards allows the Army to avoid paying for retirement benefits or providing post-discharge health coverage.
(Soldiers with post-traumatic stress disorder do not meet the Army standard for continued military service. (Army Regulation 40-501, § 2-27.k; § 8-24.a(1), (2)(d)) Nevertheless, if a Soldier has not completed the process for a medical discharge, he or she can be discharged under Chapter 13 or 14 of Army Regulation 635-200 (separation for unsatisfactory performance or misconduct), or for other reasons, which will involve the loss of pension and benefits.)
One Soldier who spoke with me said when she first obtained her service dog, a female Rottweiler, in late 2011, the dog was allowed to live with her in barracks and accompany her to work, where she quickly became a favorite of the other soldiers in the unit. “She was almost a mascot.” (It would probably have been better had she been a mascot than a service dog since Army regulations include special provisions regarding mascots.) Once the policy at Fort Bliss was implemented, the Soldier was told she could not keep her dog in barracks or bring her to work. She applied for benefits that would allow her to get an off-post apartment, but was denied. Faced with a horrible dilemma, she went to the press. Suddenly the benefits were granted.
This same Soldier began the process of trying to get the Fort Bliss recognize her dog under the new policy. Although she had obtained the dog with a prescription because of trauma suffered from a sexual assault by a superior in Afghanistan, she now had to have a mental health or medical official designate three tasks of the dog as necessary for the dog to qualify as a service dog. The dog performs numerous tasks that should satisfy ADI service dog certification requirements and should satisfy post officials as well. The dog searches rooms if the Soldier has any suspicion that somebody might have entered the apartment and returns to lie beside her when no one is. The dog presses against the Soldier if she is walking with the dog and begins to panic because of the crowds or other circumstances that set off her PTSD. When directed to “watch my back,” the dog sits behind the Soldier in a line and prevents anyone from getting too close to her. If the Soldier has a panic attack, the dog lies across her until it passes. If she cannot sleep because of the effects of the PTSD and then takes prescription drugs to do so, the dog wakes her up after the alarm clock rings by a series of progressively more effective nudges and barks, and makes sure the Soldier gets to assignments and appointments on time. “I could not function without her.” This is the definition of a service dog. Yet post medical officials are afraid to go against the wishes of the post commander and acknowledge that her dog is, in fact, a service dog.
Policy Affects More than Soldiers, More than Army Facilities
One Soldier who had spoken with the civilian landlord of an apartment building about his right to have a service animal live with him found the landlord refusing to allow him to bring his service dog into the unit, quoting the post policy with regard to service dogs. It was apparent that landlord was unfamiliar with applicable regulations of the Department of Justice and the Department of Housing and Urban Development. (For a history of how the federal agencies developed regulations on service animals, see Service and Therapy Dogs in American Society.) The landlord called up the post commander and said she had been threatened by the Soldier. The Soldier was told that if there were any more incidents like this, he would be court-martialed. Whether a court-martial could be carried out in these circumstances is doubtful, but there was a clear effort to deter any further attempt on the part of the Soldier to live with his dog in at least this building. This means that some landlords may be using the Army policy as a means of restricting their obligations under federal law with regard to service animals.
Another incident involved a Soldier’s dependent husband who has a service dog. The husband had been in the Army for 12 years and been deployed several times, was wounded in combat and suffers from PTSD. He was medically discharged on a 40% disability for back injuries, but eventually persuaded the Veterans Administration to award 100% disability for PTSD. His doctor had prescribed a service dog, which he obtained. He had regularly taken the dog to the PX before the Fort Bliss policy was implemented. On a visit to the PX with his service dog a few days ago, he was prevented from bringing the dog inside. It seems that Fort Bliss officials would like to see Army policy supersede ADA requirements even for those not in the Army.
A Meeting in Washington
Reacting to substantial opposition from wounded Soldiers, on May 1 the Army Surgeon General’s Office assembled a group of interested parties in Washington DC to discuss and recommend revisions to the service dog policy. The largest part of the discussion concerned the portion of the policy requiring Soldiers with PTSD for whom service dogs have been authorized to obtain their dogs from organizations certified by Assistance Dogs International (ADI). (Guide dogs for blind Soldiers have to be trained by organizations under the International Guide Dog Federation, but this decision does not have a limiting effect.) Since the Army insists on privatizing the recognition of dogs that qualify as service dogs, one issue that was discussed was whether an alternative to ADI recognition could be devised. One practical suggestion made would involve dogs not trained by ADI organizations being accepted on passing the AKC Canine Good Citizen (CGC) test and receiving a Veterinary Health Certificate (DD 2209) from the Army Veterinary Command. It must be hoped that the sort of practical treatment of service animal issues that has been demonstrated by the Departments of Justice, Transportation, and Housing and Urban Development will now be taken by the Army, though recent experience gives little reason for optimism in this regard.
I have found no evidence that ADI lobbied for or in any way sought the official status that the Army has given it. Several trainers working with Fort Bliss Soldiers who provide training largely on a volunteer basis told me that it was suggested to them that they consider applying for ADI membership. This would, according to ADI’s website, require paying a $1,000 application fee, something that would be a significant burden for many trainers who are charging little or nothing and often cannot cover their own expenses. ADI, having been blessed (or cursed) by the Army’s designation, should be evaluating means by which it can satisfy the demand for service dogs at posts where it does not have nearby member organizations. Indications that Fort Bliss officials are discouraging staff from authorizing service dogs may be a way of keeping the census of soldiers needing dogs, or needing approval for dogs they already have, as low as possible so that the insufficiency of the mechanism chosen for satisfying the Army policy does not appear any more impractical than it already is.
The problem should not exist at all. Aside from the legal and social reasons I have previously presented, history should be considered. The first service dogs were military animals. In World War I, ambulance dogs, also called Red Cross dogs, were trained to find he wounded on battlefields and retrieve medics for assistance. Even before the end of the war, some of them were used to pull what were then called “invalid chairs” of soldiers who could not walk. After the war, some members of German training organizations began working with dogs that had been used to guide the wounded off the battlefield and taught them to guide those who had lost their sight from war injuries. There was a clear recognition that dogs could help former members of the military return to civilian life. The guide dog phenomenon became a movement and soon spread to the United States when Dorothy Harrison Eustis, who had seen and trained dog guides in Switzerland, founded The Seeing Eye.
It is a shame that a use of dogs that began in a war a century ago, and then proliferated into many types of service uses, is now meeting so much resistance from the U.S. Army, particularly at Fort Bliss.