Rob Douglas' column appears Fridays in the Steamboat Today. He can be reached at rdouglas@SteamboatToday.com.
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It’s a safe bet that most readers of the “Veteran alleges discrimination by Steamboat Springs motel owner” article in Monday’s Steamboat Today were offended by how Western Lodge motel owner Peter Guler allegedly treated Joseph Metzger, a disabled U.S. Army veteran who wanted to stay at the motel Saturday night along with his German shepherd service dog.
As the Today reported, “Metzger, a Denver resident, arrived in Steamboat on Saturday with his girlfriend and service dog for a weekend getaway at the hot springs. The 26-year-old has served four deployments in Iraq and one in Afghanistan. In 2007, he broke his back in an improvised explosive device attack and was injured by a hand grenade in 2009. Today, the wounded warrior suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder and has his working service dog Ruud for companionship and therapy.”
After initially checking in to the Western Lodge without incident, Metzger told the Today that he was approached by Guler, who “flipped out and gave us a whole bunch of trouble. He wanted me to give him extra money to stay there, and then he said he didn’t want us to stay.”
Guler has declined to speak to the Today about the specifics of the incident but told me Thursday that he thought the newspaper had taken Metzger’s side. “I disagree with many things” in the Today’s news report, Guler said, “but I cannot talk for legal reasons.” That may be wise, as Metzger stated he is “definitely” going to file a complaint with the U.S. Department of Justice alleging that Guler violated the Americans with Disabilities Act.
If Metzger does file a complaint, it may be the first case to arise since the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs issued a controversial ruling last September that the department no longer will provide mental health service dog benefits to veterans with PTSD until the department determines whether “mental health dogs are appropriate treatment tools for mental health impairments.” Given the VA ruling, it is conceivable DOJ will have to re-evaluate whether mental health service dogs for veterans continue to fall within the parameters of the ADA.
But let’s leave the legalities to lawyers and consider the more compelling issue of human compassion when it comes to recognizing that a significant number of combat veterans suffer invisible war wounds. Metzger’s allegations against Guler highlight the misconception that too many Americans have when it comes to battlefield wounds that leave no obvious physical trace while scarring the psyche. According to Metzger, after showing Guler the paperwork for Ruud along with proof of having been awarded the Purple Heart for his injuries, Guler questioned whether Metzger truly was disabled.
“He didn’t believe me that I was disabled and said that I looked fine,” Metzger told the Today.
Of course, how a veteran looks physically is not an indicator of whether PTSD is present. According to the experts the VA cites on its website, as many as 20 percent of veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars have PTSD. Couple that with the 10 percent of Gulf War veterans and 30 percent of Vietnam War veterans who battle PTSD, and there is no doubt that a significant number of the men and women who go to war on behalf of the United States come home with a mental health challenge.
Tragically, upward of 6,500 veterans kill themselves every year — that’s one every 80 minutes. Are all veteran suicides attributable to PTSD? Of course not. But studies indicate that combat veterans — especially those serving multiple tours, as Metzger did — face a significantly higher risk of suicide than the overall population.
What can those of us who’ve never gone to war on behalf of our country do to assist those who answered the call and are now burdened with invisible wounds? At a bare minimum, law or no law, we can demonstrate our heartfelt gratitude and humanity by giving our veterans a little latitude when they ask to have their service dog by their side in circumstances where others might be denied.
To reach Rob Douglas, email rdouglas@SteamboatToday.com.