SAVES Act will match veterans with service dogs to boost well-being and reduce suicide risk
This article originally appeared on FOX.
This story discusses suicide. If you or someone you know is having thoughts of suicide, please contact the Suicide & Crisis Lifeline at 988 or 1-800-273-TALK (8255).
New bipartisan legislation has been introduced to support the mental health of America's military veterans.
Sens. Thom Tillis, R-N.C., and Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., are leading the charge on the Service Dogs Assisting Veterans (SAVES) Act, which aims to match veterans with their own service dogs.
The legislation will establish a program to award grants to nonprofit organizations that provide and place service pets, according to the announcement from Tillis' office on June 21.
This legislation is an addition to the Puppies Assisting Wounded Servicemembers (PAWS) for Veterans Therapy Act introduced by Sen. Tillis in 2021, which promoted a training program for service dogs.
An estimated 20% of Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans struggle with PTSD, according to the announcement, while more than 450,000 service members have been diagnosed with a traumatic brain injury over the last two decades.
The Service Dogs Assisting Veterans (SAVES) Act aims to match veterans with their own service dogs. "I think service dogs can be a powerful avenue" for healing, said Marine Corps veteran Cole Lyle. (iStock)
Nearly 17 veterans die by suicide every day, per a 2022 Veterans Affairs (VA) report.
Fox News Digital spoke with U.S. Marine Corps veteran Cole Lyle, who said service dogs can help suffering veterans and potentially even save them.
"Veterans, for decades, have been kind of starved for new approaches, holistic approaches, to mental health and suicide prevention," he said.
"I think service dogs can be a powerful avenue," he said. "I can't tell you how many veterans, myself included, say, ‘You know, I would have killed myself without my dog.’"
Lyle is the executive director of the suicide prevention advocacy program Mission Roll Call in Atlanta, Georgia. He said service dogs can support veterans with a variety of issues, including suicide prevention, PTSD, mobility impairments and other health concerns.
The VA’s approach to suicide prevention and mental health is, in Lyle's view, "failing a lot of veterans" with the use of "evidence-based therapies, pharmacology and psychology."
While dogs can be naturally therapeutic, Lyle said, service dogs that are trained to help with specific symptoms "can really change the course of somebody's life … with no downside and no negative effects."
Lyle shared his own experience with his service dog, Kaya, who passed away earlier this year.
Kaya helped him transition out of the military in 2014 as well as through a divorce, he said.
"[I] was at the lowest point of my life that I'd ever been," he said. "I was very close to becoming a veteran suicide statistic."
Lyle was prescribed antidepressant medication by the VA, he said, but "none of it seemed to work," he said, and it even "exacerbated" his symptoms.
"So, I sought another way," he went on. "I had a friend who had a trained service dog that had worked tremendously well for him, so I explored that option. At the time, the VA didn't provide service dogs for veterans, and I thought they should."
Lyle then moved to Washington, D.C., where he connected with Sen. Tillis to put together the PAWS Act.
The SAVES Act, as a follow-up to the original PAWS legislation, will provide service dogs to veterans at no cost.
The average service dog can cost up to $30,000, according to the National Service Animal Registry.
"It can be very cost-prohibitive," Lyle said. "A lot of these organizations – K9s For Warriors, Labs for Liberty, Patriot PAWS – provide these dogs at no charge for veterans. The grant funding would go directly to those organizations, helping them scale and provide more dogs to veterans."
Most of the organizations have a wait list that's about a year long, with hundreds of veterans on it, Lyle pointed out.
"So, the more funding we can get to these people who are doing the Lord's work on the ground, the better."
Lyle reiterated that in his view, the VA’s reactionary approach to mental health, which includes "just using pills," has "not worked" and "never will."
Said Lyle, "There's nothing in those options that can cure the soul. So, I think some of these organizations are doing great work to help veterans find out who they are again, what their purpose in life is, and how they can move forward and be successful."
As service animals are being incorporated more frequently into active military operations, including on naval warships, Lyle agreed that it’s a "great way to help with operational stress."
He said, "I support even just regular, untrained dogs being with these units to provide at least some level of therapy and relief. I think active-duty units should embrace it."
"It is clear we must continue to build on that effort to ensure this program is expanded to veterans in need." — Sen. Thom Tillis, R-N.C.
Fox News Digital reached out to the VA for comment.
In a previous statement sent to Fox News Digital, the VA said that one veteran suicide is "one too many" and that ending the crisis is the agency's "number-one clinical priority."
The agency also said, "VA offers comprehensive support that is designed to save lives and get veterans the world-class care they need, wherever they need it, whenever they need it."
It added, "This includes mental health care at VA facilities, counseling at Vet Centers across America, 24/7 access to qualified crisis responders by dialing 988 then press 1, and much more. To any veterans out there, we at VA are here for you."
In Tillis' announcement, the North Carolina senator pressed the need to further the work put forth by the original PAWS Act.
"It is clear we must continue to build on that effort to ensure this program is expanded to veterans in need," Sen. Tillis said.
"The SAVES Act will allow more veterans who are struggling with the invisible wounds of war to receive service dogs that could ultimately save their lives," his statement continued.
"We must repay the debt to the men and women who served our country. I hope Congress quickly passes this legislation to provide them with his important resource."
Sen. Blumenthal echoed these remarks in his own statement, mentioning the "invaluable support" service dogs provide for veterans.
"When our heroes struggle with PTSD and other service-related injuries during their adjustment to life at home, canine companions are right by their side," Blumenthal said.
"These grants for nonprofits will provide veterans with the resources they need to prioritize their health and well-being," he added.
"I’m proud to join Sen. Tillis in this bipartisan effort."