By Ivan Pierre Aguirre, for USA TODAY
Retired Army major Jimmy LaCaria takes a break with service dog Kaeci, who helps him cope with his debilitating PTSD.
(USA TODAY) -- Recently retired Army major James "Jimmy" LaCaria says he was afraid to leave his apartment before he got Kaeci, his 5-year-old mixed Australian blue heeler and kelpi service dog.
LaCaria, 36, from El Paso, was diagnosed in 2010 with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) following combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. He had been in and out of inpatient psychiatric treatment facilities before his psychiatrist recommended he get a service dog to help him cope with the anxiety and nightmares caused by his debilitating condition.
"Even after getting psychiatric help, I was still afraid to go outside. I was afraid to go into public places or anyplace that had a crowd," LaCaria recalled. "With Kaeci, I'm able to do that. I can have more of a normal life."
An Army policy implemented in January, critics say, has made it harder for soldiers such as LaCaria who are suffering from PTSD and traumatic brain injuries to have specialized psychiatric service dogs on military posts.
Matt Kuntz, executive director of the Montana chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, launched an online petition last month calling on Army Secretary John McHugh to revise it. "In our point of view, the need for basic regulation turned into a mountain of red tape," Kuntz said.
The policy was implemented shortly after a 6-year-old boy in Kentucky was fatally mauled by a German shepherd trained to help a soldier at Fort Campbell cope with PTSD. The incident happened away from the post. Before January, service dogs were allowed on Army posts under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).
Now, service dogs must be provided by groups approved by Assistance Dogs International (ADI). ADI does not have chapters in 18 states, making the process of acquiring one in those states more difficult. The new policy also requires servicemembers to get approval of a care plan from their commander.
"Our policy is supportive of the use of service animals in treating physical disabilities as well as PTSD," said Maria Tolleson, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Army Medical Command (MEDCOM).
Kuntz's petition at change.org calls on the Army to make it clear that soldiers do not need to exhaust all other treatment methods before they can qualify for a service dog, and to ensure that soldiers with service dogs can have living quarters where they can keep their service dogs, and to broaden the definition of an accredited service animal provider beyond ADI.
So far, 960 people have signed the petition.
"We believe that the Army's new policies are too restrictive," Kuntz said.
Kuntz, whose stepbrother committed suicide in 2007 after suffering from PTSD upon returning from Iraq, found out about the Army's new policy when LaCaria, a former classmate from the U.S. Military Academy, posted a despondent message on Facebook.
Kuntz said he feared LaCaria was suicidal after his commanders at Fort Bliss in Texas told him he could no longer keep Kaeci in barracks. LaCaria, who retired from the Army in May for medical reasons, said he spent the final weeks of his enlistment living in an on-base hotel at his own expense so he could keep Kaeci.
Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., a member of the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee, last month sent a letter to McHugh urging the Army to change its new policy.
Lt. Gen. Patricia Horoho, surgeon general and commanding general of MEDCOM, responded in a June 1 letter saying that the Army "is committed to providing the highest level of care to all soldiers," but "has no studies underway to determine the efficacy of service dog use in the treatment of traumatic brain injury."
Tester replied in a June 4 letter urging the Army to conduct a study of the effectiveness of service dogs for soldiers with PTSD, saying he remains concerned "this innovative treatment strategy will be underutilized."
Rob Cain, public affairs chief for the Army surgeon general's office, said the Army's policy on the use of animals in the health care setting is under review by the surgeon general's office. Cain said the current policy is supportive of the use of service animals in treating physical disabilities as well as PTSD.
"This new policy places only minimal requirements on the active-duty soldier in procuring the animal, and has established additional pathways towards animal accreditation and procurement," Cain wrote. MEDCOM "remains firmly committed to the employment of any and all safe and effective adjunct therapies ... in the treatment of our wounded warriors."
Congress is considering legislation that would create a pilot program for training dogs as a form of therapy for veterans suffering from various conditions. The measure, sponsored by Rep. Michael Grimm, R-N.Y., and Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., passed the House as part of a veterans' bill last fall. It's pending in the Senate.