After leaving the military, Jeremy Ramirez couldn’t sleep. Each night, his mind would stir.
“You’re reliving just a ton of stuff,” Ramirez said, describing symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder.
Years before he would become a professor and researcher at Cal State Long Beach, he was deployed to Baghdad, Iraq, where he would lose close service members, sustain an injury, witness multiple suicide bombings and see children die.
When he left, he found himself in a constant state of unease, always waiting for disaster to strike.
That’s when he found Bear, a now 7-year-old black labrador and service dog, who is trained to respond to specific PTSD symptoms.
Because Bear has made such a difference in Ramirez’s life, he’s dedicated at least six years of research to service animals. And thanks to a new $14 million federal grant, Ramirez is now working to develop standards for the certification of service animals that could be paired with veterans.
The grant will support the Wounded Warrior Service Dog Program, which is run through the Uniformed Services University.
Over the next year, Ramirez, a Health Care Administration assistant professor at CSULB, will work with 24 service dog training organizations to leverage their expertise, with hopes of creating a national benchmark for training service animals—something he says does not currently exist.
Such benchmarks would ideally make it easier to recognize imposter service dogs and better protect the rights of those who have legitimate service animals.
“My hope is to reduce the stigma on mental health, to make it okay to have a conversation about what you’re feeling, and to promote greater access to service animals,” Ramirez said.
Ramirez says the current avenues to certify an animal lack concrete standards and guidelines that are sometimes foregone altogether.
For example, Ramirez cited several incidents and news reports of dogs wearing fake service vests in public. In one case, an animal wearing one such vest reportedly attacked a veteran, he said. In another incident, a toddler was bitten, according to ABC7. In other cases, air travelers have been caught with counterfeit service canines.
Ramirez explained that a properly trained service dog will never scratch, growl, bark, or show any signs of aggression, but without a clear standard, it’s easier for people to take advantage of the system by buying a service animal vest online so that their dog can gain public access.
Not only does this violate the Americans with Disabilities Act, it undermines and threatens the essential services that properly trained animals provide, he said.
Ramirez was in his doctoral program and had only had Bear a year when he decided to begin researching service animals and their impact on service members and veterans suffering from PTSD.
After studying over 200 enrolled veterans, and working with nine different organizations over the years, Ramirez has found that PTSD symptoms can be reduced after just one month of receiving assistance from a service animal. After three months, even more improvements follow.
His research, which concluded last year, is now moving into the publication phase, and over the next three or four years, Ramirez will publish more than a dozen papers detailing his research and findings.
Roughly 2 million U.S. veterans are currently eligible for service animal assistance, according to Ramirez, and national standards will help ensure that they are safely matched with service dogs, enhancing their overall well-being and quality of life.
For Ramirez, having a service dog has not only been transformative, but it has also been life-saving.
Ramirez was only 17 when 9/11 happened. It drove him to become an emancipated minor so he could join the Army early. On his 18th birthday, he had his first day of boot camp, but it wouldn’t be long before he was already transitioning into a role in health care. Ramirez was training as a combat medic when he was assigned to the 82nd Airborne Division.
After his second deployment, Ramirez hoped to transition into the Army’s vocational nursing program, where he’d already secured a placement. But due to his experience and training, he was called into mandatory deployment, essentially a modern-day draft, Ramirez explained.
During his third deployment, which spanned 13 months in Baghdad, he was shot at by a sniper. Bullets hit his helmet and a nearby window, which shattered, raining glass across his face.
“All I (could) feel is immense pressure, like 1,000 needles in my face,” he said.
Soon after, a sergeant and a ranger staff sergeant were both shot and killed.
Despite suffering two losses and an injury, Ramirez pushed on. Over the next year, his unit would be hit by mortar fire, which resulted in more deaths.
At the 13-month mark, Ramirez was able to leave two months early to begin the nursing program he’d wanted to attend the year before. After completing the program, he spent his next four years at the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in the Washington, D.C., area, eventually becoming a hospital administrator.
But after so many years of service and working at the medical center, Ramirez felt it was time for “a breather.” So, he went back to school.
As a student, he immediately started researching trauma and PTSD among service members, in an attempt to better understand his own experiences.
“It was almost therapeutic research,” Ramirez said. “My entire career has been therapeutic for me.”
Now, it is understood that the frequency and duration of deployments directly correlate to the development of PTSD, Ramirez said.
“There’s a statistic that we lose more service members to suicide than we do in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan,” Ramirez said.
“I’m alive today because I have a service animal,” he said. “And I would encourage other veterans that, if you struggle with PTSD, you should consider service dog assistance.
By the end of his research program’s first year, Ramirez hopes to have new guidelines drafted for the certification of service animals. Those guidelines will then move into a focus group stage before recommendations are made.
“I think everybody’s been kind of calling for this—researchers, the service dog training organizations, the veteran participants and the public—this is something that would benefit everyone,” Ramirez said. “A project like this offers clarity in service animal training.”