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Dealing with the effects of sexual assault is a lifelong process that can be filled with, like, psychiatry appointments and medication. As NPR's Adelina Lancianese reports, some veterans are turning to psychiatric service dogs as an additional way to navigate that overwhelming world, even though the Department of Veterans Affairs does not recognize them or pay for veterinary care.
ADELINA LANCIANESE, BYLINE: Retired 1st Sgt. Leigh Michel guides a metal cart down an aisle. Grocery shopping is full of anxiety for the Army veteran. Michel turns to the black Labrador named Lizzy keeping stride at her side. What do we need?
1ST SGT LEIGH MICHEL: Dog food and dishwasher would be over here.
LANCIANESE: Michel reaches for an item on a shelf. Lizzy keeps watch. Michel drops a coin, and Lizzy picks it up.
MICHEL: Yeah, good - look; she just wants a treat. Yeah. Good dog.
LANCIANESE: Lizzy is Michel's service dog, and she's helping Michel overcome mobility issues from back injuries, as well psychological pain. At her house near Quantico, Va., Lizzy pulls off Michel's flip-flops.
MICHEL: Good dog. Give it. It's not a toy.
LANCIANESE: Michel spends most of her time here alone with Lizzy.
MICHEL: And I feel safer that way. But when I have to interact with her, she's developed relationships and I see how happy she's making everybody else, I feel safe with them.
LANCIANESE: She fidgets with her jewelry as she speaks. Lizzy, sensing discomfort, nestles her head under Michel's foot. Michel has major depressive disorder and post-traumatic stress resulting from multiple unreported sexual assaults during her 29 years of service. And as an Army chaplain assistant, she was a sounding board for peers who had experienced similar trauma.
MICHEL: I hear the sexual assaults, the rapes, the abuses of children coming up. I hear that they're in a position now with their boss that they can't seem to get out of. You know, horrible family stories, how many people they've killed.
LANCIANESE: Michel reached her breaking point.
MICHEL: You know, I'm walking around with all this stuff in my head, and compounded with my own stuff that ends up happening, and it's just - it's way too much.
LANCIANESE: She says she became jumpy, quick to anger, forgetful, reclusive. Michel started seeking help through therapy and medication, but Lizzy calms Michel down like nothing else can, especially during panic attacks or nightmares.
MICHEL: She'll come up right behind me and lay, but her whole body is touching mine. And it's kind of like, hey, I'm here, it's OK. And there's been times that I've woken up once she's done that, and then, you know, I can go back to sleep because she's right there. And she just lays with me.
LANCIANESE: According to the Department of Veterans Affairs, a fourth of all female service members report experiencing military sexual trauma, or MST. That includes sexual assault and harassment. Recovery is complex, full of emotional ups and downs.
CHRISTOPHER BAITY: (Imitating crying) Oh, thank you.
LANCIANESE: This is Christopher Baity demonstrating how a service dog can comfort a crying veteran by distracting them.
BAITY: Essentially, it's a game. He thinks, hey, when I see this behavior, I'm going to get a treat. All I got to do is bug you.
LANCIANESE: Baity runs Semper K9, the organization where Michel got Lizzy.
BAITY: We have seen an influx in veteran applicants who are willing to disclose, you know, that type of trauma.
LANCIANESE: Others are as well. Rory Diamond is the CEO of K9s For Warriors, a large service dog organization in Florida.
RORY DIAMOND: We do three female classes a year. By and large, those classes are composed of women who have MST.
LANCIANESE: He says working with them requires extra care.
DIAMOND: So we have a very masculine male military staff. They have to approach the warriors much differently that have MST, which is to be kinder, gentler, quieter. Don't be, and don't act, like the people who perpetrated this to them.
LANCIANESE: But a statement on the VA's website argues that service dogs might harm recovery by rendering veterans unable to function without a dog at their side. Although the VA offers benefits to veterans who have service dogs for physical injuries, a spokesperson said in a statement that there's not enough evidence to form an official stance on the benefit of psychiatric service dogs. So Michel pays for Lizzy's veterinary care. She says it's worth it.
MICHEL: I want to get better. It's just hard. But she's the primary help that I have right now to get there, over going to a shrink and taking pills. You know, as long as she's with me, I feel OK, which is better than usual.
LANCIANESE: After years of failed attempts at studying the effectiveness of psychiatric service dogs like Lizzy, the VA says it is sponsoring a new clinical trial that's expected to wrap up next year. Adelina Lancianese, NPR News.
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