This Veterans Day, U.S. Senator John Cornyn (R-TX) is hoping help for veterans can come on four legs. He’s trying to get more money to provide service dogs, free of charge, to help veterans cope with post-traumatic stress disorder.
Anyone who’s worn the uniform can tell you about sacrifice, and Jay Springstead, who served as an infantry officer during the Tet Offensive of the Vietnam War, is no exception.
“I spent my whole life trying to be normal,” Springstead said. “It’s very difficult. I had a lot of bad experiences, a lot of nightmares.”
Springstead faced another overwhelming challenge when his son, Tyler, a combat veteran of the Iraq War, took his own life in 2013.
“I thought I had gotten through the hardest part of the PTSD, and I found that I went right back,” he said.
Soon after, Springstead started volunteering at Patriot Paws, an organization that provides service dogs for veterans. He was eventually paired with his own service dog, Tex.
“It literally saved my life,” he said. “Tex helps wake me up from nightmares, he sleeps next to me to keep me from having nightmares. He will get behind me if I’m in a line in Walmart or somewhere. Those things, I used to… I wouldn’t go. I would isolate.”
Springstead and other veterans with service dogs shared their success stories with Sen. Cornyn, who’s supporting the Puppies Assisting Wounded Servicemembers or “PAWS” Act, on Friday in Houston.
“I think that’s an important part of what we owe them,” Sen. Cornyn said after the meeting.
The PAWS Act directs the Department of Veteran Affairs (VA) to set up a 5-year pilot program to award $25,000 per eligible veteran to qualified organizations like Patriot Paws. Each grant would cover a veterinary health insurance policy for the life of the dog, travel expenses, equipment, and training.
“Congress would still have to appropriate money for the program,” Sen. Cornyn said. “But what we’d like to do is authorize the pilot program, and then we can have a conversation with our appropriators about what the appropriate level of funding would be.”
Sen. Cornyn says most organizations have a 3- to 5-year waiting list.
Lori Stevens, Executive Director and Founder of Patriot Paws, says training typically takes between 18 months to 2-and-a-half years, adding the dogs are trained in 65 basic cues plus customized needs for each individual veteran.
Stevens says the dogs are “not the magic cure,” but when veterans take the first step forward in their recovery, it can change the lives of both them and their families.
“I had a kid run up and give me the biggest hug,” Stevens said. “He’s 13 years old. It’s like, ‘What (are) ya doing?’ He says, ‘My dad came to my first football game.' He was so excited that his father was able to get out of that house and watch him play football.”
Sen. Cornyn told KHOU 11 News he doesn’t expect partisan disagreement on this issue and hopes the bill can move this forward by the end of the year.
His staff tells KHOU 11 News the funding will come from cutting duplicative spending in the VA’s human resources department and says no services will be cut as a result.