Former Speaker of the House Paul Ryan reportedly once called Kaya, a German shepherd frequently padding along the halls of Congress alongside Marine veteran Cole Lyle, the "most powerful lobbyist on the Hill."
With her large brown eyes, gentle manner and keen ability to read emotions in a room, the service dog swayed every member of the House and Senate to fund service dog training for veterans with mental health conditions.
"She was really an ambassador on Capitol Hill and throughout the country, for all service dogs for veterans who have these issues," said Lyle, executive director of the veterans advocacy group Mission Roll Call and owner of Kaya for the past nine years.
Kaya, whose work ensured passage of the Puppies Assisting Wounded Servicemembers, or PAWS, for Veterans Therapy Act, died Feb. 4 after a short battle with cancer, just a few months shy of her 9th birthday.
But her legacy will live on, in a pilot program underway at five Department of Veterans Affairs medical centers that are teaching veterans how to train service dogs as part of their personal therapy.
"These dogs really are emotional and mental prosthetics," Lyle said during an interview Tuesday with Military.com. "It's like losing a part of your heart."
Lyle served in the Marine Corps from 2008 to 2014, including a deployment to Helmand province in Afghanistan and Camp Bastion, where he worked for a month in the field hospital that provided front-line treatment for critically injured coalition troops and civilians.
Soon thereafter, he developed post-traumatic stress and, while he pursued therapy and medication, he continued to struggle, facing unemployment while his marriage disintegrated. As former military colleagues began to take their own lives, Lyle contemplated the same.
"I was in dire straits," Lyle said.
Then Kaya entered his life, a 10-week-old bundle of puppy energy.
Few can argue that time spent with a puppy is sure to brighten the darkest moods, but the bond that formed between Kaya and Lyle, and the sense of responsibility each appeared to have toward the other, convinced Lyle there was an argument to be made for service dogs to support veterans with disabilities beyond blindness or physical assistance.
He pulled together the money needed to send Kaya to months of formal training as a service dog, depleting his deployment savings and accepting support from his family, whom he said realized how much he struggled and how the dog appeared to lift him up.
"When I was in that moment, a couple pounds of trigger-pull away from being a veteran statistic myself, my thought process was that I can't leave this dog. When you feel completely alone and you feel no one cares about you, your instinct is, 'I can't leave this dog. I have to take care of this dog. This dog loves me, and this dog cares about me,'" Lyle said.
A year later, Lyle found himself on Capitol Hill, where Sen. Thom Tillis, R-N.C., inquired about his companion. Lyle saw an opportunity to extol the benefits of service dogs for mental health support and noted that the VA covered dogs only for veterans with physical disabilities.
He figured that if one senator was interested, others would be as well, and the idea for the PAWS Act was born. Initially, the legislation -- first introduced in 2016 by Sens. Deb Fischer, R-Neb., and Cory Booker, D-N.J., and in the House by then-Rep. Ron DeSantis, R-Fla. -- required the VA to implement a five-year pilot program to provide service dogs for post-9/11 veterans diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder.
The final compromise version, which eventually passed in 2021 without opposition, created a five-year pilot for veterans diagnosed with post-traumatic stress to train service dogs as part of their own medical care and therapy.
The VA has spent more than a decade researching the impact of service dogs following the inclusion of a provision in 2011's annual defense policy bill that required the department to determine whether trained service dogs could help veterans with PTSD.
The research, however, had significant flaws and, after several missteps, was put on hold and later restructured. Eventually, researchers turned to comparing whether trained service dogs provide better support to veterans than a well-trained companion animal, also known as an emotional support dog.
Service dogs are trained for a variety of tasks to assist veterans with PTSD. Kaya, for example, woke Lyle up from nightmares and interrupted anxiety attacks or depressive symptoms by nudging him or licking his face.
The VA study concluded that both types of animals helped decrease PTSD symptoms in their owners, but the results were more significant in participants paired with a service dog.
In addition, veterans paired with service dogs had fewer suicidal behaviors and fewer suicidal thoughts at the 18-month point, while both groups displayed a decrease in other symptoms such as anger and disrupted sleep.
Still, the VA does not cover the costs of service dogs for mental health conditions, and the wait lists for nonprofits that provide such dogs to veterans are long.
Following the passage of the PAWS Act, the VA program began last March at medical centers in Anchorage, Alaska; Ashville, North Carolina; Palo Alto, California; San Antonio, Texas; and West Palm Beach, Florida.
To date, according to the Veterans Health Administration, 86 veterans have participated, with most (74) receiving their training in Alaska, Asheville and San Antonio.
A VHA spokeswoman said last week that the VA expects the program to yield information on the benefits of service dog training for veterans with PTSD.
"There are many effective treatments for PTSD, and service dog training is one option we are working on to ensure veterans have access to resources that may improve their well-being and help them thrive," spokeswoman Rachael Burden told Military.com.
A study published in December in the journal Psychiatric Research and Clinical Practice found that service dogs helped veterans reintegrate into civilian life, reporting more social activity outside their homes, increased interaction with family and friends, and a decreased reliance on medication for their mental health diagnoses.
Lyle, who is the executive director of Mission Roll Call, an advocacy group that aims to reduce veteran suicide, said he needed no convincing. He wishes the VA would look beyond focusing on whether service dogs just reduce symptoms of PTSD and view their effects on their owners more holistically.
"I've been hearing from veterans talking about how Kaya influenced them to get a service dog for their issues and how beneficial it's been for them," Lyle said. "I want Kaya's legacy to be that more veterans who need service dogs can get service dogs."
Over Christmas, Lyle noticed a bump on Kaya's right elbow that was later determined to be cancer. As more bumps appeared across her body, it became clear Kaya's cancer was aggressive and had metastasized.
Seeing her pain, Lyle made the tough decision all dog owners make at some point. It was time to let go.
Last month, Lyle took his beloved service dog for one final trip back to Texas A&M University to visit faculty and friends -- a place close to their heart, where they had met and launched the effort to get the PAWS Act passed.
The two flew to Dallas' Love Field on Southwest Airlines -- the company that had shuttled them back and forth during their early lobbying efforts. On the flight, the pilot announced Kaya's presence and story to the passengers, who cheered her, and on arrival at the airport, thousands lined up in the terminal to welcome her home -- a video that went viral on TikTok.
Following visits to familiar haunts throughout College Station, including a favorite pub, the pair went to a grassy spot near a pond where Lyle had spent hours studying for his bachelor's degree. There, they laid together for hours, enjoying the sunshine and savoring the memories of two lives that had been entwined for far too short a time.
Then, they said goodbye.
"It's still so raw and fresh, but the outpouring of love and support has been overwhelming," Lyle said.
Back at home in Northern Virginia, the house is strangely quiet, absent of the sound of a jangling collar or shake of a furry head. Lyle said it's too early to contemplate getting another dog, and he isn't sure he even needs one right now, because even in death, according to Lyle, Kaya's service is lasting.
"She was so good and so helpful to me that even without her, I would never dishonor or diminish her legacy by making an irreversible mistake, taking my own life. That's how powerful she was," Lyle said.
-- Veterans and military personnel experiencing a mental health emergency can call the Veterans Crisis Line by dialing 988 and pressing 1. Assistance is also available via text at 838255 or online chat at VeteransCrisisLine.net.
-- Patricia Kime can be reached at Patricia.Kime@Military.com. Follow her on Twitter @patriciakime.