Cole Lyle is a 26-year-old veteran of the War in Afghanistan. Upon returning home to Texas, he faced what so many of his fellow soldiers contend with: Unrelenting bouts of Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome (PTS) that upended the life he’d known before his deployment.
Burdened with the weight of carrying his experiences and being thrown back into civilian life without his Marine support system, Cole found himself in a dark place. The counseling and medications provided by the Veterans Administration (VA) weren’t quelling his nightmares or anxiety.
But Kaya, a service dog he eventually obtained, worked wonders.
Kaya helped Cole channel his despair into a constructive force, but it took countless hours of self-reflection and grueling work. Last week, the legislation Cole poured his heart and soul into for over two years was finally made a reality when the Puppies Assisting Wounded Servicemembers (PAWS) Act was introduced in Congress.
The bill, filed by Rep. Ron DeSantis (R-Fl.) has 19 original bipartisan co-sponsors. It would create a five year pilot program at the cost of $10 million – a drop in the bucket compared to what’s spent on other VA approved therapies, many of which fail veterans.
The legislation would allow the VA to partner with organizations that already provide service dogs to veterans, giving them the resources to match Assistance Dog International (ADI) certified animals with those in need.
Regarding the bill, Rep. DeSantis said, “As we face an epidemic of veteran suicides, we must make sure that all of our returning servicemembers are honored and taken care of, no matter the wounds they bear.”
Cole’s path toward obtaining Kaya, who inspired him to pursue the PAWS Act, wasn’t an easy one.
In his darkest post-deployment hours, Cole struggled to find his purpose. He opened up about his experiences to Rare, saying, “I knew I’d reached, to channel Reagan, a time for choosing in my own life.”
As he explained, “When they were in the military, veterans had a purpose, had a mission. They get out, and it all gets ripped away from them. And that’s where I found myself.” Said Cole, “I didn’t have my Marine friends to lean on anymore. I got divorced. I didn’t have a job at the time. I had to take a hard look at myself.”
“This sounds crazy,” he explained, “But I locked myself in a room for a day with a Bible and a notepad. I said I’m not going to leave the room until I figure out what I want to do long term and have a reasonable plan to achieve it.”
“What I came up with was public service,” he said.
This led Cole both to Washington D.C., and to Kaya: A perfect pairing that inspired the PAWS Act, and provided him with a mission focused on helping his fellow veterans.
As Cole explained to Rare, after he decided to pursue public service, he also focused on making some other life changes. “I decided that I didn’t want to take pills anymore. I was going to try to seek alternative therapy,” he said. “I asked around. I talked to psychiatrists. I talked to a of number people. They said I should try a service dog, but the VA doesn’t provide them.”
Cole was connected with nonprofits that provide the dogs. But they had wait times of up to a year-and-a-half, and the dogs could cost up to $20,000 each. He knew that was too long of a timeframe, so he took action on his own. Cole ultimately acquired Kaya through a breeder that provides dogs for the nonprofits that do this work. He got her ADI certified. He paid for all of her vet and training bills. This cost him $10,000 of his own money.
But according to Cole, it was well worth it.
“I got Kaya and started utilizing her on a day to day basis in May of 2015,” he said. “Around that time, I saw an immediate decline in symptoms. I’d already had her for a few months before she went to her official training. And even then, before she was trained, I could see there was an improvement.”
“Once Kaya had been trained to wake me up from nightmares, and I could trust that she was there and I had peace of mind that there was somebody to be with me when I was struggling with these symptoms, I saw these symptoms subside,” said Cole.
Amazingly, Kaya was able to help Cole when VA approved medication and therapy didn’t. This experience translated into a passion. And as fate would have it, Cole’s focus on public service and self-improvement culminated in what is now the PAWS Act.
As Cole explained, he was walking with Kaya on Capitol Hill one day, when a Senator noticed and approached them. “He asked me why I had Kaya,” said Cole. “I told him I was a veteran and that she helps me with my PTS.”
Cole went on to describe how he had to pay for her out of pocket. “The Senator told me, in no uncertain terms, that this was crap, and invited me to his office so we could draft a policy solution.”
This set Cole on the path that has become his unrelenting passion. “This is a bipartisan issue. It really doesn’t matter where you are on the ideological spectrum. Everybody agrees that taking care of veterans is an obligation of a congress that sends them to fight,” said Cole.
As Cole has explained to every politician he’s spoken with, “If Kaya has helped me so much so quickly, when other treatments failed, why is it not the VA’s responsibility to give this option to other veterans that are struggling?”
Cole also noted that, based on data from the VA’s own study, 22 veterans a day commit suicide. And this study was only performed in 21 states. The full number is tragically, likely much higher.
It’s also true that many veterans fall victim to addictions that can spiral into dangerous behavior. As a study from the Citizens Commission on Human Rights International noted, “One in 6 service members were taking a psychoactive drug in 2010. Researchers identified 25 psychiatric drugs as proportionately associated with violence.”
Given these disturbing facts, isn’t it the VA’s obligation to explore all treatment alternatives? This is what Cole is focused on as he walks the streets of Washington with Kaya at his side. He’s a living testament to the benefits a therapy dog can provide to PTS sufferers. And he’s doing everything he can to share his story, inspiring others along the way.
As Cole said, “I’m not trying to take away other options like medication. But we want to make sure veterans have a wide swathe of options so they have different ways of healing available to them for mental health issues.”
Whether the PAWS Act will gain immediate traction is yet to be seen, but Cole has just begun to fight. He’s working to set up meetings with any member of Congress willing to listen. As Cole told Rare, “ I don’t deal with my symptoms as often anymore because have Kaya. I just want other veterans to have this opportunity.”
“I want to veterans to focus on getting a sense of purpose back. And a dog, on a small, simple level, forces you to wake up in the morning. They need to go outside. They need exercise. It gives you a sense of purpose because it gives you something to love and something to take care of. And that’s something that pills or therapy will just never do,” said Cole.
For more information on the PAWS Act and advocacy around it, you can visit www.PAWSAct.com.