WASHINGTON (WUSA9) - Service members struggling with invisible injuries are finding comfort in an unconventional treatment: service dogs.
These highly trained dogs help in ways that medicine and therapy have not.
But the current VA regulation only approves service dogs for wounded warriors with physical injuries that limit their mobility.
Of the three combat veterans WUSA9 interviewed for this story, only one qualifies for a service dog because of his physical injuries.
Michael Carrasquillo credits his service dog, Ojai, with changing his life.The two have only been together for one year.
"It's greater than love. He's family," said Carrasquillo. "I've seen more improvement in myself, in my relationship with others, with the world in general, has significantly changed in this last year that we've been together."
Meanwhile, the two remaining veterans are still without service dogs.
Veteran Steven Sarro believes a service dog would ease his torment. Sarro's distress stems from taking somebody's life in Iraq. He's attempted suicide four times. He believes a service dog would have prevented the attempts.
In addition, Randy Short is convinced a service dog would get him out of the house. He only leaves for medical appointments.
"I don't go to malls. I don't go anyplace really that's going to have a lot of people I don't know," Short said. "It's so easy to see those guys who sacrificed limbs as being deserving and they are absolutely deserving, but when you see somebody like me who I look and kind of function normally, it doesn't seem to be an issue."
VA changing its perspective
The VA regulation on service dogs requires a veteran's injuries to be so severe, they limit his ability to get around. But that rule may be changing.
VA Secretary David Shulkin said, "I've seen it myself. And I've seen the impact that these dogs can have on veterans and so I'm a believer."
With roughly 20 veterans committing suicide every single day, the VA Secretary says there is no time to wait for scientific data or evidence to prove service dogs help invisible injuries too.
"I don't want to wait until the research is there. If there's something that can help our veterans, we want to be pursuing it," said Shulkin.
Dr. Harold Kudler, the Chief Consultant for Mental Health for the Veterans Health Administration, echoed the VA Secretary.
"Having a significant mental health problem can be just as limiting," said Dr. Kudler. "Can immobilize you. Can make you house-bound. Just about as easily as a physical limitation."
Kudler mentioned a pilot program pairing highly trained service dogs with 100 veterans suffering from post traumatic stress, anxiety or depression.
The pilot program comes as the VA views its own regulations in a different way. It's looking at mental illness as a potential mobility issue.
So far, the VA has approved 11 veterans for the program. There are 57 applications under review.
RELATED: New VA pilot program could help veterans with PTS get a service dog
Dr. Kudler added, "The biggest limiting factor is the supply of trained dogs. It takes a long time to train these service dogs. You literally have to grow them. And then you have to train them."
The VA doesn't breed dogs—but relies on outside organizations, mostly non-profits, to raise and train them. Not one of the three veterans had heard of this pilot program. We asked Sarro why he felt so strongly that a service dog would help.
"Not a single bit of judgment," he said. "They love you no matter what you've done." He said the program gives him hope. "Yes, it gives me a lot of hope. Something to look forward to," said Sarro.
It's something Carrasquillo understands well. With Ojai in their lives, he and his wife finally felt ready to start a family after a decade of marriage.
"In the last year, being with him, I've taken on so much more responsibility and been able to do so much, we got to a place and we thought we can do this! If you trace it all back, it starts with Ojai," he said. Their son Logan was born May 10th.
Veterans interested in applying for a service dog
Veterans with post-traumatic stress, depression or anxiety can apply to be part of this pilot project, if they receive care from the VA.
Interested veterans should start by talking to their treatment team and asking to be considered for a service dog under this program.
The VA is also involved with a long-term study of service dogs for veterans with post traumatic stress. That research was ordered by Congress. It's tracking more than 200 veteran and service dog teams, but it will take years to collect the data collection and analyze it.
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