From Suicidal to Serving Others: The Story of a Veteran and His Dog

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Cole Lyle held a gun in his hand, ready to take his own life, when a friend knocked on his door. 

“I’ll be honest with you, in my opinion, it is divine intervention because my finger was literally on the trigger,” Lyle, a Marine veteran, says. 

After six years in the military, Lyle was struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD. He had tried medication and was going to therapy, but none of it worked, he recalls. That’s when he began exploring the option of getting a service dog.

Lyle spent $10,000 of his own money on Kaya, a loving German shepherd, because the Department of Veterans Affairs didn’t provide funds for acquiring service dogs. 

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Cole Lyle, a Marine veteran, with his service dog Kaya. (Photo: Virginia Allen/The Daily Signal)

Kaya brought needed purpose back to his life, Lyle says, so he became an advocate of veterans getting access to service dogs. 

Today, Lyle is executive director of Mission Roll Call, a nonprofit that brings the needs of veterans directly to members of Congress. 

Lyle joins “The Daily Signal Podcast” to share his personal story and to explain how all Americans can help veterans who are struggling after their service to America. 

Also on today’s show, we cover these stories: 

  • Russian President Vladimir Putin “never imagined that the world would rally behind Ukraine so swiftly and surely,” Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin says.
  • President Joe Biden’s Energy Department bans the sale of light bulbs that produce less than 45 lumens per watt.
  • The European Union becomes the newest critic of Tesla CEO Elon Musk’s acquisition of Twitter.

Listen to the podcast below or read the lightly edited transcript.

Virginia Allen: It is my privilege today to be joined by Cole Lyle. He’s a Marine veteran and the executive director of the organization Mission Roll Call. He’s actually here today with his service dog Kaya, who’s on the ground, we can’t see [her], but she’s very comfortable. Cole, thank you so much for being here.

Cole Lyle: Absolutely, Virginia. Thank you for having us.

Allen: Well, I want to get into your story, but before we do that, just give us a brief explanation of what is Mission Roll Call. What do you-all do?

Lyle: Yeah. Mission Roll Call was founded a few years ago to give a direct voice of veterans across America to policymakers, traditional advocacy organizations that most people are probably familiar with, the American Legion, the [Veterans of Foreign Wars] of the world.

The individual veteran, if they have an idea or a thought on legislation, they can go to their congressman, but then they have to go through layers of staff and all that business. But if they go through their advocacy organization, their idea gets filtered through the local posts, through state conventions, national conventions, before it gets presented to members of Congress every year and their lists of priorities.

We have the ability to poll veterans. We’ve got about 1.4 million veterans across the country on our list, we poll them. We can get as granular as ZIP code or we can do national polls on legislation, not specific pieces of legislation, but just policy generally, because we are a 501(c)(3), we’re nonpartisan. We give them the information that veterans across the country feel about certain things.

I’ll give you a quick example. The debate about toxic exposures right now is raging in Congress. Over the past 20 years, there were a lot of burn pits in Iraq and Afghanistan where units would just put everything that they had into trash and veterans were exposed to toxic fumes from various different things that people would put in the trash.

The House passed a version of the bill that would expand not only health care to people who have potentially been exposed to these things, but also disability benefits. I think the price tag on it is something like $150 billion over 10 years, so it is very expensive. The Senate, led by Sen. [Jon] Tester of Montana, who chairs the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee, passed a bill that was health care only.

There’s a battle going on between the House and the Senate on which version they should pass.

We polled our veterans and said, “Would you rather see health care-only pass now or wait for a larger compromise package that includes disability compensation?” We gave the results of that poll to both committees of jurisdiction as they go through deliberations in this debate.

Allen: OK. What did the veterans say? What did they want?

Lyle: Well, 70% of them—because we put it in context and we said the likelihood of the House version passing in the Senate is minimal because the chair of the Senate veterans committee, a Democrat, Sen. Tester, passed the health care-only version to his committee, it’s unlikely that he’s going to be willing, for a couple of different reasons, to expand disability benefits—70% of them said that they would prefer that Congress pass the health care-only version of the legislation.

Now, we didn’t get reasons for that. I certainly have my own thoughts, but it’s my opinion that probably veterans feel like people, veterans who are suffering from these diseases resulting from toxic exposures, they want health care to take care of the veterans now and we’ll worry about the disability benefits later.

Allen: You’re really bridging that divide. You’re going straight to veterans, you’re finding out what they want, and then you’re taking that information right to members of Congress and allowing that gap to close.

Lyle: Right. This is a perfect example, because pretty much every other D.C.-based veterans service organization is in full support of the House legislation that would call for the expanded disability compensation, which, frankly, is what makes it so much more expensive. There have been some Republicans that have said, “We can’t afford this. We’re already ‘x’ trillion dollars in debt.”

One hundred and fifty billion dollars over 10 years is a huge price tag when you consider that the [Department of Veterans Affairs] just requested its largest ever budget at $301 billion, but there are also some arguments that the science is really just not there to prove that certain conditions are related to exposures, frankly, because we don’t know really what went into those burn pits and what people were breathing in—but anyway.

In this particular case, we’re one of the few voices that gave information to members of Congress that was contrary to what most of the veteran service organizations were saying and advocating for, but it’s not our position, we polled the veterans across the country and that’s what they said.

Allen: Yeah, I love that. Well, I want to get in a little bit deeper into the work that you’re doing on Capitol Hill in just a few minutes, but let’s take a little bit and just talk about your story. You’re a Marine veteran, you served for six years, correct? Talk a little bit about why you decided to join the Marines and what your experience was like.

Lyle: Well, I grew up in Texas and I was always service-oriented, I was an Eagle Scout in high school. But also, my mom said, “When you turn 18, you’re either going to school, getting a job, or joining the military, but you’re not staying at my house.”

I said, “OK, well, I don’t really want to do what my sisters did,” which would be to take out student loans and work two full-time jobs during school to try to pay my way through. And I was also self-aware enough to know at the time that I probably needed a little kick in the pants. I didn’t have as much discipline as I thought was necessary to be successful in college. So I said, “I’m going to join the military.”

My now brother-in-law at the time was dating my sister, he was a Marine and I really respect him as a person. He was the one that helped influence the choice of service of branch, which is why I joined the Marine Corps.

But I said, “I want to serve. If I eventually go to college, now I’ll be paid for.” There were a lot of reasons I joined, but certainly I got a lot out of it—some good, some bad. But I got out in 2014.

Allen: Where were you stationed over those six years?

Lyle: Well, I joined actually as a reservist. And then I got activated to go to Afghanistan in 2010, 2011. I spent some time in Helmand Province in 2011, which was, for your listeners, it was kind of the peak President [Barack] Obama surge period when there were a lot of Marines in southern Afghanistan.

It was a very kinetic time. I myself didn’t see a whole lot of heavy combat, but I volunteered a lot of my time toward the end of my deployment at a trauma center in Helmand for a couple of different reasons.

But when I got back, I realized I was having some symptoms. A post-deployment health assessment said I needed to go seek treatment for post-traumatic stress, so I did that. The VA prescribed me some medication. [I] went to therapy at what are called vet centers, which are kind of out-patient, VA-funded VFWs. None of that was really working.

I went through a pretty nasty divorce at the same time that I got out of the Marine Corps, didn’t have a job, wasn’t in school. I was really lacking purpose and meaning in my own life, and I got into the mental spiral of, “What am I still doing here?”

One night in 2014, I was about 1 to 2 pounds of trigger pull away from becoming a suicide statistic. I’d been drinking a lot that night. If it had not been for a Marine friend of mine that intervened, I probably wouldn’t be here right now.

Allen: What did he do?

Lyle: He just showed up on my door, knocked on my door. Which, I’ll be honest with you, in my opinion, is divine intervention, because my finger was literally on the trigger and I was—

Allen: So you were ready to take your life.

Lyle: Oh, yeah. In hindsight, I’m very surprised that the knock at the door didn’t scare me and jolt my finger. But he showed up, intervened, obviously. He knew I was having a tough day anyway, which is why he stopped by.

I can’t explain it, but the next day I just woke up—as I mentioned, I was drinking pretty heavily that night. I woke up and I was just so clear. I wasn’t hungover at all. My mindset, I latched onto 2 Timothy 1:7, which is, “For God didn’t give us a spirit of fear and timidity, but of power, love, and self-discipline.” I think I might have botched that quote, but you get the idea.

I decided, instead of thinking I have nothing anymore, I switched it to “I have the opportunity to do anything,” because I wasn’t tethered to anything anymore.

I decided to go back into public service. I only knew one person at the time that I knew was in politics, so I asked her how to get plugged in. I volunteered with some local political organizations in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. Ended up coming up to D.C. to intern for a senator, interned for Heritage Action for a summer.

Through all that though, I knew that I still needed to find a way to mitigate my symptoms of post-traumatic stress. I quit the pills, quit the therapy. I had a friend who had a service dog, so I explored that option, but the VA didn’t provide service dogs or funding for him. I went out and spent about 10 grand of my own money on Kaya, who is apparently very tired.

It worked for me, it worked really well for me. It’s not a silver bullet for everybody, but it works. I think anybody who’s ever owned a dog will tell you that it can be therapeutic after a stressful day, but especially a trained dog, like her, that’s trained to wake you up from nightmares or stop anxiety attacks through animal-assisted intervention can be really powerful.

Allen: What changed in your life, from struggling with PTSD and then to getting Kaya? Did you notice a difference in yourself immediately? Was it slow, was it gradual?

Lyle: Well, to be clear, I mean, I still have my days where it—

Allen: Yeah, of course.

Lyle: I’m certainly not a victim, but I think one of the misperceptions that the American public has about veterans, because they have a skewed perception based on Hollywood and media and military service is really becoming a family business so they don’t have a touch point, they either view veterans as heroes or ticking time bombs that are dysfunctional and whatever.

Here I am, not trying to be self-aggrandizing, but done some pretty special things in my opinion, but I still struggle through this sometimes, right?

Allen: Sure.

Lyle: But Kaya, I certainly saw an immediate difference, because when veterans get to that point, that low point in their life, it’s really more, in my opinion, about lack of connection and lack of meaning than anything. Dogs can provide a sense of purpose in your life that pills or therapy just won’t ever do. They need to be walked, they need to be taken care of.

Then with what she was trained to do, if I was having a nightmare or something, she would jump up on the bed, lick my face, wake me up, pull the sheet off, and she’d sit up with me until my heart rate lowered. It wasn’t necessarily an immediate effect, but certainly a very powerful one. I rarely have nightmares anymore and I can’t remember the last time I had an anxiety attack, so I think it’s worked. I still don’t take any medications or anything.

Allen: Now you are trying, or have and are, connecting other veterans with service dogs. Talk a little bit about the work that you have done.

Lyle: Yeah. As I mentioned, I interned up in D.C. I got Kaya and I was up here interning. I get a lot of looks typically because I’m not blind and I don’t have a limb missing. People ask, “Why does that guy have a dog?”

One day it just so happened to be a U.S. senator and started asking me questions about it, actually about two blocks away from here, and said, “Hey, man, can I ask about your dog?” I said, “Sure.”

We started talking and I told him that the VA didn’t provide any funding for this and it was a great alternative method of treatment. He said, “Well, what do you think we should do about it?” And I said, “Well, you’re the policymaker, you tell me. I don’t know this world.” But he asked me to stop by his office, so I did.

Nothing came from that meeting, but the idea that if he was willing to listen, then other people would be, too. I drafted the initial version of what became known as the PAWS Act, which stands for “Puppies Assisting Wounded Service Members,” which would’ve provided grant funding to organizations that already do this, are vetted, have good 990s.

In a extremely heated election year in 2016, it was a very bipartisan bill, over 250, I think, co-sponsors in the House and the Senate had 12 or so senators, including Sen. [Tim] Kaine, who was the vice presidential nominee at the time, and then Sen. [Marco] Rubio, who was a Republican candidate for president—so super bipartisan.

Unfortunately, even things that are very bipartisan sometimes don’t get a vote in the Senate or a vote in the House. I testified in front of two House committees a couple of times about it. And the VA came up with some very lackluster, in my opinion, answers as to why they weren’t going to embrace this particular treatment for a couple of different reasons I’m happy to go into, but I don’t want to bore your listeners. It took a couple iterations.

Allen: Where does the PAWS Act stand right now?

Lyle: Oh, it passed actually. I’m sorry, I forgot to mention a very important detail.

Allen: It’s a big deal.

Lyle: Yeah, it passed last August, actually, as the Afghanistan thing was going on. At the time I was helping people evacuate, get to the gate at [Hamid Karzai International Airport] and evacuate out of Afghanistan. It was a pretty rough time for me. It was a very welcome change of pace that the PAWS Act passed, actually, Aug. 26 of last year.

It wasn’t the exact version that I had originally authored. It went through a couple of different iterations and Congress can’t do anything without compromise. But yeah, I’m really happy it passed.

Allen: So now service members can receive these dogs, as groups that already are training service dogs, they can receive grants in order to provide these dogs to members who have served.

Lyle: Yeah. It’s not exactly as I had authored it, so it’s a bit different than that. Going back to the reasons the VA opposed it, they said there wasn’t enough scientific evidence to prove that dogs can be therapeutic. They look at, frankly, mental health and suicide prevention from a skewed perception because they view suicide as mainly a mental health problem, but it’s not right.

Less than 30% of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans are diagnosed with a mental health condition. At the moment of decision, it can be a conglomerate of financial stress, relationship stress. It could be driven, and certainly if you have a mental health issue you’re at a higher predisposition to take your life. But they view it primarily through that lens, which I feel like is a mistake.

But they said there wasn’t enough scientific evidence behind it and all this other stuff. Ironically, the final version that passed, the workaround that Congress came up with was we’re not going to just give them dogs and make that the form of therapy, we’re going to have the veterans train the dogs and then they get to keep them after the training, but the training is the therapy.

As it passed—look, a rising tide lifts all boats, it ends up getting more dogs in the hands of veterans that need them so I didn’t complain, but it was very funny to me because there’s even less science behind the fact that training dogs can be therapeutic than the dogs themselves.

Allen: Hopefully it’s therapeutic, hopefully it works well and is helpful and creates a bond between the dog and master.

Lyle: Yeah. I think it’ll help, yeah.

Allen: Yeah, that’s awesome. As you speak with veterans around the country, what do you hear from them about what they need and the support that they want both from government but also just from local community?

Lyle: It’s a great question, and honestly probably the one I get most often when I do interviews.

Just to set the scene a little bit, it’s probably because, as I mentioned, military is becoming a family business. Less than 1% of the U.S. population at any given time serves on active duty. Eighty percent of veterans report having an immediate family member that served.

The population of people bearing the burdens of our war is getting smaller and smaller and it’s getting harder and harder for the [Department of Defense] to recruit because we see stories about issues on active duty, especially after Afghanistan, people start to wonder, “What’s the point of somebody serving if the sacrifices of 20 years are just going to end like that?”

But if the suicide problem persists—and roughly 17 veterans a day, according to VA data, commit suicide, which makes it about 6,205 a year. The VA says that’s gone down in the last couple of years, I would contest that for statistical data collection reasons, which I won’t, again, bore your listeners about.

But I think the main thing—I’m sorry, going back to the original point. Mission Roll Call’s main priorities are suicide prevention, access to care and benefits, and amplifying the voices of underserved veteran populations, which can be female veterans, which can be tribal veterans, rural veterans that have unique access issues to care and suicide prevention.

As I mentioned, we poll on policy issues, we give it to members of Congress, but we also put out content to profile veterans in the United States. Part of the reason is because the public, the people that ask, “How can we help?” don’t have a lot of frame of reference, so we highlight individual stories.

There’s a lot of veterans in the United States that just want to live their lives. They don’t really want to use the VA. In fact, only … 50% of the 2 million veterans in the United States even use VA.

Allen: Oh, interesting.

Lyle: So only half of the veterans in the United States use VA. A lot of them just want to be left alone, they want to live their lives. They’re doing well for themselves, they may occasionally struggle.

My response is always, if you don’t have a frame of reference, if you don’t know a veteran in your friend group or your family group, volunteer your time a couple of hours, it doesn’t have to be a lot, a couple hours a month at a veteran organization, or not even a veteran organization, an organization that may help veterans in the community. Learn about veterans’ stories because really the only way to honor their service and sacrifice is to not forget their service and sacrifice.

It’s a difficult question to answer because certainly you can donate to an organization that does good work on veterans’ behalf and that can be the way you help.

I always see these social media campaigns where people do 22 pushups a day or 17 pushups a day to raise awareness of veteran suicide, but I think a much better use of your time would be to donate 22 minutes a day to trying to contact a veteran.

You don’t have to make it weird, don’t be like, “Hey, just checking up on you,” but just get to know a veteran and learn their stories and just try to understand, because as I mentioned, a lot of people just don’t have any frame of reference.

Allen: Now, how can folks get involved with what you guys are doing? If they’re listening and they’re surprised by this information that you’re sharing and they’re thinking, “OK, I want to do something. I want to be a part of the solution,” how can they do that?

Lyle: Well, first and foremost, thank you for having me and being able to talk about all this, but you can go to missionrollcall.org and get a better idea of the work that we do. You can sign up for our text and email notifications for the content we push out.

If you’re a veteran, we regularly poll you, as I mentioned earlier, through emails and through text messages. But even if you’re not a veteran, we put stuff out, we’re on Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn, Twitter. You can follow us @missionrollcall, we put most of our content there. Education, awareness, advocacy, super important.

If you want to make a small donation, I’m not going to tell you not to. The work we’re doing is really important, as I mentioned, for a couple of different reasons. At the end of the day, our No. 1 priority is just to try to get less veterans to take their lives and realize that you have so much to offer, not only the country and your community, but you have so much to offer yourself by staying here and finding your purpose and meaning again.

Allen: Well, I think it would be anyone’s joy and honor to get to act in the position that that one gentleman did for you, to be the person that stands in the gap and says, “Wait, don’t pull that trigger.” I think that’s so many American’s desire, to be that person that stands up and is that support for our veterans.

Cole, thank you for your time. We really appreciate it.

Lyle: Yeah, absolutely. Thank you for having us, again.

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