Vet claims he was harassed for having service dog in VA hospital

Osvaldo Martinez relies on dog to deal with PTSD

MIAMI - He is a veteran who was injured in battle. Now, after all of his services, he believes the Miami Veterans Hospital did him a shocking disservice.

It's been almost ten years since Marine Osvaldo Martinez served in Fallujah, Iraq.

"My friend's dying, you know," Martinez said, "(The) guy (was) standing 5 feet from me are missing a left eye now. I still remember it like it was yesterday."

He said the memories still haunt him in the form of post-traumatic stress disorder.

"I freak out," he said. "(It) could last 30 seconds, but that 30 seconds in your brain is like, whoo, so real."

Martinez now relies on a service dog to deal with his disability. He said Duke realizes when he is slipping toward a flashback and intervenes with distraction, affection and attention.

"So, he's on alert, so now I don't have to be on alert," Martinez said.

"So he's helped you?" investigative reporter Ross Palombo asked.

"He's helped me since October," Martinez said.

In July, though, Martinez said that help was questioned in the one place he never expected: Miami's Veterans Hospital.

"(I) walk into the building, I immediately hear from behind, ‘Hey, you with the dog,'" he said.

He said his dog was under suspicion, setting off an argument that lead to him being detained and getting a ticket for "disorderly conduct."

"You stop and detain me because of my service dog?" Martinez still questions.

"You're not allowed to have a service dog?" Palombo asked.

"He told me I'm not allowed to have a service dog in that hospital," Martinez said.

"At no time was the service animal in question," VA spokesman Shane Suzuki told Local 10.

The VA said federal officers were only questioning whether Martinez was abusing the animal after they claim they saw him jerking the dog's leash.

"The police officer who was walking down the hallway saw the veteran yank the chain harder than what he thought was appropriate," Suzuki said.

"(Martinez) said that simply doesn't add up because if you were interested in the dog being abused that should have been the ticket, and it wasn't. Does that even make sense to you?" Palombo asked Suzuki.

"I think that the idea of how tickets are applied and how citations are given completely depends on the individual situation," Suzuki said.

"I think it's shameful," disability expert Marc Dubin said. "As a former prosecutor, I have to tell you I'm suspicious that's simply a CYA."

As a former federal prosecutor and current advocate at the Center for Independent Living, Dubin pointed out that the law has required all hospitals to recognize service animals since the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. Another national law in 2012 also affirms that the VA "may not prohibit the use of a service dog."

"Seems to me the VA has some learning to do," Dubin said. "It's disappointing and shocking."

It can also be confusing. Miami's VA also has its own policy, spelled out in an official memo, that defines some animals as "therapy animals." It says those animals are not covered by any service dog policy.

"The issue isn't with service animals, it's with people (who) bring their pets on ground," Suzuki said.

"There's some confusion over PTSD and whether that requires an animal, correct?" Palombo asked.

"Not here," Suzuki said.

However, at the Miami VA is where a veteran claims he had a battle and claimed his service animal was in hostile territory.

"They're breaking the law," Martinez said.

After suiting up and serving two tours of duty, the U.S. is the last place Martinez thought he would, once again, be fighting for rights and the rule of law.

"Yeah, it's like I come back home and I got issues," Martinez said. "And it's at the VA. It's the only place I can go to go get help."

At least one other veteran has come forward with similar claims, but the hospital said in the second case as well that the service dog was not the issue. The VA maintains that it does allow trained service dogs at its facility for those with PTSD.

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