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Controversial Army policy makes it difficult for soldiers to get service dogs

Christ Chavez for msnbc.com

Army Specialist David Bandrowsky with "Benny," his prescribed service dog on June 2, 2012. Both are stationed at Fort Bliss in El Paso, Texas.

One day this spring, Army Specialist David Bandrowsky, 27, played Russian roulette with his .38 revolver.

Bandrowsky planned to end his life, which had been at turns unbearable since he returned from a 16-month deployment in Iraq in 2008. He had been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, a traumatic brain injury and depression as a result of his combat experience.

Right before he pulled the trigger, his service dog, Benny, jumped up and knocked the gun out of his hand.

"He saved my life," Bandrowsky said.

Benny was not trained for that scenario, but the 18-month-old Shepherd-hound mix has been taught to, among other tasks, push Bandrowsky away from crowds, wake him if he removes a sleep apnea mask at night and nudge him into a petting session if he seems on the verge of a panic attack.

Last fall, Benny was prescribed to Bandrowsky by a mental health counselor at Fort Bliss in El Paso, Texas, where he is stationed. Bandrowsky has received counseling and drug therapy and undergone in-patient mental health treatment twice. It is Benny, though, that gets Bandrowsky through each day. He was paired with Benny in November and feels unsafe if the dog is not at his side.

But Bandrowsky may lose permission to have Benny at Fort Bliss because of an Army policy implemented in January.

That policy, which limits how soldiers can get service dogs, created a regulatory system that critics worry might put the lives of soldiers recovering from physical injuries and mental illness at risk.

In some cases, local posts have issued their own guidelines in addition to the Army's policy, and soldiers report being harassed by fellow soldiers as well as higher-ranking officers for having a service dog.

"They’re trying to make it so difficult that it can’t be done," said Bob Thorowgood, who runs Hounds2Heroes, a service dog program, and has placed service dogs with soldiers at Fort Campbell in Kentucky.

'They aren't like normal pets'
Before January, service dogs were permitted on Army posts as per the American Disabilities Act (ADA), which requires businesses to allow people with disabilities to enter with service animals. Service dogs had frequently been prescribed by mental health counselors or doctors to perform specific tasks for injured soldiers, the majority of whom remain active-duty, but are transitioning through a medical retirement process.

While the ADA does not impose national standards on training, the new Army policy stipulates that dogs must now be provided by organizations approved by Assistance Dogs International (ADI). That umbrella organization certifies local companies and non-profits according to its own criteria, but does not have affiliated chapters in 18 states. Soldiers who want a service dog in a state without an ADI-affiliated organization, such as Louisiana, Montana or Georgia, would have to seek assistance elsewhere.

The policy also requires that soldiers first seek approval for a service dog from their commander. Eligibility would be considered by a panel of health-care professionals, including a primary care doctor, physical therapist and mental health counselor.

Fewer than 60 active-duty soldiers have service dogs at Army bases around the country, estimates Maria Tolleson, a spokeswoman for the Army Medical Command, the agency that issued the new policy.

The agency was developing a new policy early this year, Tolleson says, when a 6-year-old boy in Oak Grove, Ky., was fatally mauled off-post by a dog belonging to an Army service member at Fort Campbell. The animal was reportedly a service dog. The incident occurred on January 29 and the new policy was issued the next day.

The policy is under review, and representatives of the Army Medical Command met in early May to discuss the changes.

Debbie Kandoll, who is based in Las Cruces, N.M., attended the meeting and has been a vocal critic of the policy, saying that its requirements are prohibitive. Kandoll has placed more than 40 service dogs with soldiers at Fort Bliss through her organization M*A*S*H: Mutts Assisting Soldier Heroes. She believes the policy doesn't acknowledge how instrumental service dogs can be to injured soldiers. 

"We’re talking about disabled Americans who are broken, who are on their way out of the Army and trying to put their lives back together again," she said. "They are trying to achieve a new normal."

The policy means Thorowgood and Kandoll, who are not affiliated with ADI, can no longer provide their services to active-duty soldiers. Neither charges soldiers for thorough training programs or for matching them with an animal, and say they have not received complaints about their service dogs misbehaving.

Sharan L. Wilson, executive director of Freedom Service Dogs (FSD) of America, Inc., an ADI-affiliated service dog organization in Englewood, Colo., believes the Army policy is an attempt to address problems with unqualified service dog providers. She said an official at Fort Carson, also in Colorado, called her recently after a soldier there paid $10,000 for a service dog that was a three-month-old puppy. When the soldier brought the dog into a commander's office, it urinated on the floor.

The Army has to see the professionalism of the service dogs to understand that they aren’t like normal pets, Wilson says. It takes six to nine months for her organization to fully train a service dog and that is followed by a two-week course for the owner as well as an observation period when the trainer visits the dog's new home.

FSD, which relies on donations and grants, places about 35 dogs a year at no cost to the soldier; there are 64 people on the organization's waiting list. Many of the requests FSD receives are from the Wounded Warrior Battalion at Fort Carson.

"The service dogs aren’t a silver bullet, but in the right situation, they really are making a difference," Wilson said. "These dogs are the things that are keeping these guys from committing suicide."

Life has become 'hell'
Since the policy was issued, some posts have written their own rules. At Fort Bliss, a policy published on April 4 stated that soldiers must now exhaust all other treatment options before seeking a service dog. They also must submit a command approval letter to the review panel in addition to other documents. Soldiers who had service dogs prior to the new policy are now required to provide several documents, including a memo from a medical professional documenting at least three tasks that the service dog can perform to assist with specific disabilities.

Bandrowsky says he has not yet been able to provide that document in particular as his off-post mental health counselor was not permitted to write the letter. As a result, he doesn't know if he'll be able to keep Benny.

Dennis R. Swanson, a public affairs officer at Fort Bliss, told msnbc.com that no service dogs have been removed from their owners. "We're just bringing all the service dogs into compliance," Swanson said. "If [a soldier's] dog is not in compliance, then we'll work with them to get a dog that is in compliance."

Even if Bandrowsky is able to keep Benny, he says that having a service dog has subjected him to harassment.

When he joins unit formations, one sergeant will whistle and bark at Benny. Per the Fort Bliss policy, if a service dog is disruptive, a commander can forbid its presence.

Another sergeant makes derogatory remarks about Bandrowsky's need to bring Benny into his office. Since the policy came down, Bandrowsky says, his life has become "hell."

Christ Chavez for msnbc.com

Army Specialist Blake Hilson with his prescribed service dog, "Bella," on June 2, 2012. Hilson is stationed at Fort Bliss, where a new controversial policy is changing the way soldiers get service dogs.

Specialist Blake Hilson, also at Fort Bliss, says he is routinely hassled for having his service dog, Bella, on post. Hilson, who was injured during basic training in February 2010 and hemorrhaged four discs in his back, uses Bella for support if his legs give out, to help him up stairs and to get up.

"Soldiers often accuse me of falsifying all my injuries and that I just want to bring my pet to work," Hilson, 24, said. Recently, a higher-ranking soldier walked by Hilson and Bella as they stood against a wall and kneed the dog in the face. Hilson believes the action was deliberate.

Swanson said any harassment of a soldier is "against Army policy and Army doctrine."

Both Hilson and Bandrowsky are going through the medical retirement process, which can take more than a year. They feel the harassment may be designed to pressure them out sooner by snapping or overreacting. If they are discharged dishonorably, they will lose lifetime healthcare and pension benefits.

Having a service dog "is almost the same thing as having a cane or wheelchair -- you’re looked at as being the weak one in the herd," Hilson said. "They see that as physically weak, but also mentally weak because I need a companion 24 hours a day."

'It's a harassment thing'
These anecdotes do not surprise Thorowgood, who runs Hounds2Heroes in White Plains, Ky.

Thorowgood estimates he placed about 20 service dogs with active-duty soldiers at Fort Campbell who were going through the medical retirement process. In February, the post issued its own rules, specifically forbidding service dogs in transition units for badly injured soldiers. Approval for a service dog, according to the policy, will only happen after a soldier "reaches their highest level of independence and is living off post."

Thorowgood had heard from an injured soldier who was not permitted to ride the shuttle bus on post with a service dog. One soldier with PTSD and TBI in the warrior transition unit who got a service dog and was trying to help others do so was pressured to stop.

"It’s a harassment thing," said Thorowgood, an Air Force veteran. "To see these people, the way they suffer where they can’t go out in public and then they can when they have a dog -- it’s important me to keep doing what I’m doing." 

Though the Army policy remains under review, other posts, including Fort Hood and Fort Carson, are considering implementing their own policies.

Bandrowsky expects to learn soon if he can keep Benny, but the possibility of losing him is catastrophic.

"I will get chaptered out before I give Benny up," Bandrowsky said, referring to a bad conduct or dishonorable discharge. "I’ll give my [medical retirement] up before I give Benny up. Because if I give Benny up — I can’t." 

Jason Strachman Miller contributed to this report.

Rebecca Ruiz is a reporter at msnbc.com and a 2011-2012 Rosalynn Carter Mental Health Journalism Fellow. Follow her on Twitter here.

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