Per the Congressional Budget Office, military operations from 2003 to 2014 in the Iraq and Afghanistan theaters have claimed the lives of 5,282 Americans in uniform. Their sacrifice, and the brave service of all personnel who have been killed in action, will be recognized on Monday’s Memorial Day holiday.
From the front lines, 51,947 soldiers left the Middle East with injuries that often left them physically and psychologically damaged: an estimated 2.6 percent of veterans wounded in action, and 9 percent of those who were medically evacuated from combat zones, lost major limbs. A higher number, as much as 20 to 30 percent of all veterans deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
While honoring the soldiers who gave their lives in service of this country, it is important to recognize our obligation also to the brave men and women in uniform who now require treatment for wounds and scars inflicted during battle. With help from animal research and testing, clinicians and scientists have developed treatments that promise our wounded veterans a higher quality of life than was ever heretofore possible.
Animals play a crucial role in the lives of service members, at home and abroad, especially for those injured in battle. Thousands of dogs have sniffed out improvised explosive devices (IEDs), bombs, and narcotics, from the jungles in Vietnam to the arid deserts of the Levant, offering protection and companionship to our soldiers. Powerful bonds between war dogs and their handlers are forged as they face, together, the very real risk of death and bodily injury.
Behind the scenes, dogs and other animals have helped researchers develop the science and medicine to treat both soldiers and furry companions who serve alongside them for injuries sustained on the battlefield. Animals have also been crucially important in the development of pharmacological and therapeutic treatments for warriors whose scars are less visible—those plagued with anxiety, depression, flashbacks, and insomnia.
An estimated 100,000 veterans in the United States are living with spinal cord injuries, per the Paralyzed Veterans of America, whose Research Foundation funds promising basic and clinical science that often includes work with animal models. A recent study, in which paralyzed rhesus monkeys could walk again after researchers administered wireless devices in their brains, suggests that a cure for patients suffering from spinal cord injuries and/or related conditions may not be far away. Soldiers and dogs with wartime trauma-induced spinal lesions may one day regain control of their arms and legs, thanks to these revolutionary research developments.
Remarkably, studies involving sensory signals in rhesus monkeys were also part-and-parcel of the work by Chicago researchers who, in 2013, created a robotic prosthetic arm that “will be able to deliver sensory responses that mimic natural sensations of touch directly to the brain.” Advancements in prosthetics and the resultant gains in quality of life for battle-injured amputees have been made possible by this game-changing research with animal models. It remains to be seen whether the sense of touch could be restored for dogs who are fitted with prosthetics after limbs are amputated from trauma, illness, or birth defects—but this may soon be possible for soldiers who have lost limbs in combat.
Statistics on post-traumatic stress disorder are elusive, and symptoms are about as uniform as the way that wartime is experienced and processed by those who are so diagnosed. The road to recovery is complicated for veterans who suffer from hallucinations, from nightmares and suicidal ideation.
Treatment for PTSD typically involves a combination of lifestyle adjustment, individual and group therapy, and pharmacological measures. To date, the most effective and the only FDA-approved prescription tools to fight symptoms of PTSD belong to a class of drugs called serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs). These medications target five diagnostic criteria associated with the condition: intrusion (such as nightmares and flashbacks), avoidance, negative alterations in cognitions and mood, and alterations in arousal/reactivity. Foundational research in the 1950s with mice and nonhuman primates provided scientists with a biochemical explanation for depression (improper levels of certain neurotransmitters in the brain) that would eventually lead to the first psychotropic drug treatments—offering hope for patients who experience crippling psychological symptoms which are often, as in the case with combat veterans, induced by trauma.
War dogs and companion animals are a source of comfort and part of the course of treatment for many soldiers suffering from PTSD. With our veterans, they have a relationship that demonstrates bravery and fealty in their service of this country. Whether they return stateside with injuries that are visible or invisible, unquestionably, animal research has helped make the adjustment to civilian life easier and has led to medical breakthroughs that have bettered the lives of our veterans as well as their canine companions.