The U.S. Army implemented a policy in January that limits how soldiers can get service dogs, and critics say the new system puts the lives of soldiers recovering from physical injuries and mental illness at risk.
Previously, the dogs were permitted on Army bases under the Americans with Disabilities Act, which requires businesses to allow people with disabilities to enter with service animals. Service dogs are often assigned to injured soldiers, most of whom remain on active duty but are in the process of medical retirement.
However, the new policy specifies that dogs can now be provided only through organizations that are approved by Assistance Dogs International (ADI), an association that certifies companies and nonprofits according to its own criteria. ADI currently doesn’t have any approved organizations in 18 states, including Louisiana and Georgia, meaning soldiers in those states would have to seek assistance elsewhere.
The Army’s policy also stipulates that a soldier must first seek approval for a service dog from his or her commander. A soldier’s eligibility for a dog would then be discussed by a panel of healthcare professionals.
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According to the Army Medical Command, the new requirements were necessary after a 6-year-old boy in Oak Grove, Ky., was killed outside an Army post by a service dog that belonged to a soldier at Fort Campbell.
Fewer than 60 active-duty soldiers have service dogs on Army posts in the U.S., and although the new policy is under review, soldiers like Army Specialist David Bandrowsky worry they may lose permission to keep their dogs.
MSNBC reports that earlier this spring, Bandrowsky, 27, who had been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, depression and a traumatic brain injury after a 16-month deployment in Iraq, was about to take his own life when his service dog knocked the gun from his hand.
“He saved my life,” Bandrowsky says.
Benny, an 18-month-old Shepherd-hound mix, hadn’t been trained for this scenario. The dog was prescribed to Bandrowsky by a mental health counselor at Fort Bliss in El Paso, Texas, last fall, and Benny has been taught to push his owner away from crowds, wake him if he removes a sleep apnea mask at night and nudge him into a petting session if he exhibits symptoms of a panic attack.
Since the new Army policy was implemented, some posts have issued additional guidelines, including Fort Bliss, where Bandrowsky is stationed. At Fort Bliss, soldiers now must exhaust all other options before requesting a service dog. Soldiers who had dogs prior to the new policy must now provide their commanders with several documents, including a doctor’s statement that the dog can perform at least three tasks to assist with a specific disability.
Bandrowsky told MSNBC that he hasn’t been able to provide that document because his off-post mental health counselor isn’t allowed to write it. He doesn’t know how much longer he’ll be allowed to keep Benny.
Dennis R. Swanson, a public affairs officer at Fort Bliss, said that so far no service dogs have been removed from soldiers.
"We're just bringing all the service dogs into compliance. If a dog is not in compliance, then we'll work with them to get a dog that is in compliance," Swanson told MSNBC.