For Leigh Michel, her dog is more than a pet. Her service animal, a black labrador named Lizzy, helps her get through the day. While she’s frequently confronted with questions, requests to pet her dog, and other forms of unwanted attention, Michel is also plagued by another issue.
Currently, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs does not recognize psychiatric service dogs as a valid form of treatment for mental illness. Because of this, she cannot get coverage for Lizzy’s medical bills and training. As someone who have years of her life to the military, Michel finds this unfair.
While serving as a chaplain assistant, she was the sounding board for everyone’s troubles, traumas, and fears. Combined with her own traumatic experiences with sexual assault in the military, it became too much to bear. When she returned to civilian life, she realized that she needed help. She was jumpy and paranoid, and was later diagnosed with PTSD, depression, and a mild brain injury.
That’s where Lizzy came in. The service dog is trained in matters like these, and knows exactly what needs to be done when Michel begins having a nightmare or panic attack.
“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,'” Michel said to NPR. “And there’s been times that I’ve woken up once she’s done that, and then I can go back to sleep because she’s right there and she just lays with me.”
According to VA statistics, 1 in 4 female service members will experience sexual assault while serving in the military. This is a massive number, and yet many of these assaults never come to light. There’s too much at stake, too much stigma, and too much guilt — so many of these women never report their experiences at all.
“I don’t want my soldiers to know,” Michel explained. “They’re going to know that part of me is gone, taken from me. So you have to stay strong like they tell us. Keep fighting.”
For many people like Michel, these dogs are a valuable part of their lives. Their duties go beyond that of a pet, and they deserve to be recognized as true service animals. Christopher Baity, the person behind Semper K9, says that these animals are just as important as any other form of assistance.
“A service dog is a service dog, no matter if the person is blind or assaulted in the military and can’t perform normal life. A service dog is a piece of durable medical equipment that performs a specialized duty for a disabled American, like a cane, wheelchair or prosthetic.”