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Man's Best Friend Should Not Be a Pill

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Slowly and painfully, America is becoming aware of the challenges that troops returning home from Iraq and Afghanistan have to face. Most of us have seen news reports about brave servicemen and women living with grave injuries, both physical and psychological. We've also seen the dire consequences when the psychological effects of war are not treated.

As a veteran of World War II and a survivor of Nazi POW camps, I can personally attest to this: in many ways, for a veteran the most important part of healing is knowing that even in the darkest moments, there is someone there. As thousands of healing veterans today can attest, trained dogs have an incredible and unique ability to fulfill that need, providing a source of companionship, unconditional love, and in many ways becoming a savior to a family in crisis.

It should be no surprise though that military physicians are turning to the modern arsenal of pharmaceuticals to treat the two most prevalent wounds of war: pain and psychological disorders.

The Journal of the American Medical Association published a study this month which found that veterans suffering from psychological disorders, particularly PTSD, are prescribed opioids -- painkillers like OxyContin, Percocet and Vicodin -- at much higher levels than veterans who are not suffering from psychological problems.

The study found that painkillers are a prescribed treatment for almost one in five veterans with PTSD and one in ten veterans suffering from other kinds psychological problems. There is serious cause for concern here, not just because opioids don't treat the root problems of psychological injuries gained in war, but also because they can ignite an entire new set of problems, not least of which is addiction.

So why is this happening? "There's really been a culture of, 'Let's get rid of pain,' and I think unfortunately that pendulum may have swung too far," says Dr. Karen Seal of the University of California, San Francisco and the San Francisco Veterans Affairs Medical Center who was the study's lead author.

This impulse to do anything to ease the pain of veterans who are suffering from the effects of living and fighting in deadly war zones, often over the course of multiple tours, is nothing if not understandable. But alternatives exist today which offer veterans more than just management of symptoms, but real therapy.

Among the most powerful of these treatments is the assistance of a professionally trained service dog as I mentioned above. Service dogs are one of the few treatments that become more effective over time. The dogs are trained, for up to two years, to meet the needs of each veteran, and the bond that evolves between the two deepens the effects of the treatment over time.

This is a crucial aspect of the benefit of service dogs, since healing from the traumas of war is a process that continues over years of work and needs more than a Band Aid.

The lure of palliative treatment like opioids, which can be quickly prescribed and cheaply fulfilled, is indeed tempting. No doubt, painkillers are often an absolute necessity to veterans suffering from excruciating and debilitating pain. But even in these cases, we need to go further in offering substantive, long-term treatments, like service dogs, that will help veterans return to their lives and fulfill their dreams.

At this point when the wars are dropping out of daily headlines after many years of being front and center, it's more important than ever that we advocate for the returning veterans in every possible way, but especially by offering meaningful and productive treatments for their injuries.

This is exactly our goal at Vets Helping Heroes, an organization I founded which is dedicated to making as many service dogs as possible available to veterans coming home. For the better part of the past decade, these men and women of the armed services have given us their best. It's time we give them ours.