Former Army Spc. Kermit Scott was counting the days until Nov. 19, when he was to be admitted to a 30-day in-patient program run by the Veterans Affairs Department in Washington state.
Scott has experienced PTSD symptoms such as nightmares, social anxiety and anger since at least 2011 and felt the program, at the VA's American Lake facility near Seattle, carried the promise of "being like normal."
"I have friends who went through the program and it benefited them to the point where they could go out in public," the veteran said.
But 13 days short of leaving for the program, Scott received a phone call from American Lake saying his service dog, Cooper, was not invited to come along.
The veteran, who deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan and earned a Purple Heart for injuries that include a gunshot wound, toe amputation and blast-related brain injuries, broke down and cried.
"It was devastating," Scott said. "Cooper helps with my stability; he can tell when I'm having tremors and need assistance. He opens up doors, turns on the lights, gets my shoes."
Many VA facilities allow service dogs; in 2014, the department modified its policies to allow trained service dogs into nearly all areas of its facilities and medical centers, as long as they are under the control of their handlers and the animals are trained to perform a task for a person with a disability.
But the regulation does not apply to most in-patient treatment programs at VA; directors of the department's medical centers and clinics have discretion to choose whether a service dog can accompany a veteran to treatment. And in cases of acute inpatient care or inpatient mental health treatment, dogs are allowed only if they are part of a documented treatment plan.
"We have to manage the situation, putting the veteran first, and the ability for a local decision to be made by a director gives them the maneuverability to do that," explained Troy Brown, senior security officer at the Veterans Health Administration.
But the department is weighing a change to the policy, publishing a notice in the Federal Register on Nov. 26 seeking public comment about the viability of allowing service dogs to stay on VA property with their veterans "for extended periods of time while the veteran is being treated in a residential treatment setting."
Brown said the VA wants to accommodate veterans who rely on their service animals while being mindful of other patients.
"I foresee [this policy] being expanded and the notice is a step to get us started and work on the process," Brown said.
Former Army Sgt. Kermit Scott says he was turned away from a VA inpatient program because he was not allowed to bring his service dog, Cooper.
Photo Credit: Courtesy of Kermit Scott
Cooper, a Labrador retriever, is a trained mobility assistance dog who can perform 90 tasks, not least serving as Scott's constant companion for two years, a job that gives Scott's primary caregiver, his wife, peace of mind when she leaves the couple's home in Fairbanks, Alaska.
The decision by American Lake came as a surprise, Scott said, because he thought the VA was required to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act.
But as an executive branch entity, VA is exempt from the ADA, which requires private businesses or most public buildings to give access to service dogs at their facilities.
The changes VA made in 2014 to its service dog policies were designed to better align the department with ADA requirements. But VA still reserved the right to decide whether a service dog can accompany a veteran in an acute inpatient setting or residential treatment program.
In Scott's case, the VA Puget Sound Health Care System, which oversees the American Lake facility, exercised that authority.
"I was like, 'You've got to be kidding me.' I tried therapy and it just ripped off the scar. I really want to do this program," he said.
In a statement to Military Times, VA Puget Sound Health Care System officials said they "had not denied admission to any veteran due to [their] service animal policy."
But they added: "Standard operating procedures for accepting a service animal into the treatment program were not in place due to the myriad accommodations that needed to be addressed.
"These include everything from managing the other 60-plus patients who may have complex medical conditions, such as allergies, or psychological issues related to animals, to addressing the toileting needs of service animals during hours the unit is 'locked down.' Prior to this new policy being implemented, veterans seeking admission entered the program without their service animal," the statement went on.
The admission process has since been altered, according to the statement.
The change comes too late for Scott, who found another inpatient program that allows him to bring Cooper along. He will travel to Boise, Idaho, on Jan. 18 to start treatment at another VA facility.
"How surprising now, all of sudden after my complaint with the ADA and senators, [VA American Lake] hurries to put in place the policy to accept dogs to the program," Scott said. "It's the right thing to do. You have a lot of veterans out there who have service dogs."