Man's best friend is a lifesaver to soldiers

(CBS News) DALLAS - As the war in Afghanistan drags on, the number of American troops suffering post-traumatic stress disorder grows. The suicide rate is way up, too: among active-duty troops, it's now averaging almost one a day. Some of those most at-risk benefit from the companionship of service dogs. But there's a problem.

"I hated dogs," said Army Spc. David Bandrowsky. "I couldn't stand dogs growing up. Then I got Benny, and he changed my life."

Army Spc. David Bandrowsky, who was injured in Iraq, credits his service dog Benny for changing his life.
CBS News

Bandrowsky suffered a brain injury from a roadside bomb in Iraq that left him depressed and suicidal. Earlier this year, deep in depression, with just Benny by his side, he reached for his gun.

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"I was just basically sitting on the couch playing Russian Roulette with it," said Bandrowsky, "and right before I pulled the trigger to take my life, he jumped up on me and knocked the gun out of my hand. And I believe 100 percent that he saved my life."

Psychological service dogs like Benny are trained to respond to their owner's fear or panic, by barking or nuzzling their owners.

Support groups and volunteer trainers like Debbie Kandoll provide the dogs to soldiers for free. We found more than 120 soldiers have them.

"And the reality of my anecdotal experience has been that within two weeks of placing a soldier with a service dog, they no longer are considering suicide as an option," she said.

A soldier could get a dog if his doctor recommended it. But in January, the Army issued a new policy that also requires a panel review -- commander approval -- and only approves dogs from providers accredited by Assistance Dogs International, a group that sets training standards.

"We all want what's best for soldiers, and if that's a dog, that's great," said Col. Ted Cieslak, the Army doctor who wrote the new policy. He explains the Army had no formal policy and wanted to set minimum requirements.

"I don't see this as a huge obstruction to soldiers getting the animals they need," he said.

But since the new policy took effect in January, dog providers at four bases say they have not been able get a dogs to soldiers who requested them. Other soldiers could lose their dogs.

Fort Bliss's commander concluded that service dogs should now be a "treatment of last resort." Cieslak acknowledges that is a problem. "I think as we go forward and try to revisit the policy and craft new guidance, that's something we'll want to take a serious look at."

David Bandrowsky is unsure if he'll be able to keep his dog. That worries him. "I'm on medication like crazy for the symptoms. But now since I got him, he took 99 percent of all the symptoms away," he said.

An Army decision on whether Bandrowsky will lose Benny is imminent.