Cole Lyle started Kaya's K9s in honor of his late service dog, to ensure that veterans wouldn't have financial stress taking care of their service animals
Marine Corps veteran Corporal Cole Lyle’s service dog has saved his life "on multiple occasions."
“If she wasn’t there, I don’t know that I would be here,” says Lyle, 34.
His service dog, Kaya, played such a critical part in combating his Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) that she was at his side on Capitol Hill as he lobbied for other veterans who have PTSD to get service dogs.
Kaya flew with him on more than 300 flights before she died of cancer earlier this year. In honor of her memory, he launched a non-profit, Kaya’s K9s, to help pay emergency veterinarian bills and critical care for other veterans' service dogs.
“What I’m trying to do is save the dogs and heal the dogs that are serving veterans, ultimately, because I want these dogs in the fight – to continue to prevent veteran suicide,” says Lyle, who is also the executive director of the veteran advocacy group, Mission Roll Call.
After serving in Afghanistan, Lyle was diagnosed with PTSD in 2011 - and though he tried therapy and pills, they "made things worse," he says.
In April 2014, he almost became a veteran suicide statistic himself, he says, "when another Marine knocked on the door and saved my life."
After that night, he worked with another former Marine to train a German Shepherd puppy named Kaya to be his service dog. She woke him from his nightmares and helped stop anxiety attacks.
“Kaya wasn’t just a dog, she was a service dog that was, specifically, trained to help me,” he says. “She became an ambassador for all service dogs in the US. She really was one-of-a-kind.”
Lyle drafted the Puppies Assisting Wounded Service Members Act, aka PAWS Act, and spent years lobbying law makers until it was signed into law August 2021. The Federal Law allows the VA to find service dogs for veterans with PTSD.
In January, Lyle noticed a lump on Kaya’s front right elbow. She was diagnosed with cancer. Soon it spread throughout her body. “It was everywhere,” he says.
Lyle’s friend Gary Sinise, an actor and veterans' advocate, paid for Kaya’s veterinary care, even before founding the Gary Sinise Foundation Veterinary Valor Fund in 2019 — and Lyle says veterinarians at Texas A&M University offered to cover the cost of Kaya’s cancer treatment.
“They said, 'We can try to treat it with radiation therapy. We can try to treat it with chemotherapy, and we won't charge you anything.' And it was going to be in the tens of thousands of dollars for all of that treatment. And I was really blown away with the offer,” he says. "But they also said, 'We can prolong her life maybe for a month or two, but it's going to be uncomfortable. I didn't want her to continue to be in pain and suffer —after all the suffering that she had stopped throughout her life."
Kaya's last flight was February 2. He shared a video of the flight on instagram that has gotten more than 300 million views.
“I had no idea it would resonate as widely and as intensely as it did,” he says.
Lyle said goodbye to his beloved service dog two days later. And though many have asked him if he plans to get another, he says that the progress he made with Kaya means that he doesn't feel the need as acutely anymore.
"I'm definitely going to get another dog, but I just don't know if it'll need to be another service dog because frankly, I don't have a lot of nightmares, anymore, or anxiety attacks, and I think that's a result of Kaya and the work we did together," he says. "Sometimes, late at night, I'll go down a rabbit hole, reading articles that were written about her, after the fact, and it's just hard. She was such a tremendous dog."
In her memory, he decided to start a national program to provide veterinary medical care to other veterans' service dogs.
“I wanted other veterans to have the same resources that I had,” he says. “These service dogs are basically mental prosthetics that help veterans function.”
Many programs that provide veterans with service dogs don’t also pay for veterinary care. Pet insurance is expensive, and even if veterans have pet insurance, it doesn’t cover everything. Emergency vet bills can be very expensive, and because acute financial stress is a leading cause of veteran suicide, Lyle doesn’t want veterinary care to be an additional stressor for veterans.
“These dogs are supposed to be a lifeline for veterans that need them,” he says. “They shouldn’t have to go through financial stress caring for their dogs.”
In April 2023, he launched Kaya’s K9s, a Houston-based non-profit which pays for critical and emergency veterinary care for veteran’s service dogs.
“The mission is very simple: We want to heal dogs that serve veterans,” he says.
To date, the non-profit has helped more than 10 veterans with vet bills for their service dogs, which have ranged from $500 to more than $5,000.
“We have saved every single one of them,” Lyle says. “And every veteran that we've helped has come back and said, 'I don't know what I would've done.' "
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