Army veteran Stefan LeRoy looked down at his white Labrador-Golden Retriever mix, Knoxville, as he spoke about how his life has changed over the past two months.
When LeRoy, 24, takes his legs off at night, Knoxville turns the light off for him, and when LeRoy’s baby cousin drops a toy, Knoxville picks it up. “Knoxville can do all those things,” said LeRoy, who was severely wounded by a bomb in Afghanistan.
He shared his story last week with the Military Veterans Caucus — represented by California Democratic Rep. Mike Thompson and Florida Republican Reps. Gus M. Bilirakis, Tom Rooney and Ron DeSantis — to show the benefit of service dogs for veterans with post-traumatic stress.
The lawmakers are pushing the Service Dogs for Veterans Act, which would direct the secretary of veterans affairs to carry out a pilot program on dog training therapy.
“We need to get more trainers on this. We need to get more dogs out with our brave men and women who serve in our country’s military,” Thompson said.
Five months into his deployment in 2012, LeRoy stepped on an improvised explosive device while carrying a injured platoon member to a medevac helicopter. He lost both of his legs below the knee.
“There are veterans like me and veterans with invisible wounds,” LeRoy said. He was diagnosed with traumatic brain injury and often could not speak properly.
“It’s been great on the mental side, as well,” he said about receiving Knoxville.
DeSantis, who is an Iraq vet, said he has met with people whose sons have committed suicide since returning from deployment. Counseling and drugs help some veterans, but not all.
“The VA has really dropped the ball,” he said. “What’s the worst that could happen if we pair veterans to service dogs? The worst thing you’ve done is given someone a dog,” he said.
Lauren Lee, program manager for the nonprofit Canine Companions for Independence, told the panel she started out asking veterans what their plans were for the next three to five years.
“Every single one of them cried on the phone when we asked that particular question,” she said. They would say they don’t have goals or that they never leave their house.