Vets flying with service dogs pose ‘challenges’


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Jul 12, 2023

Vets flying with service dogs pose ‘challenges’

Hinson, Iowa veteran and TSA call attention to issue Aug. 28, 2023 5:54 pm, Updated: Aug. 28, 2023 6:09 pm CEDAR RAPIDS — Trent Dirks removes his belt, shoes and items from his pockets and places them

Hinson, Iowa veteran and TSA call attention to issue

Aug. 28, 2023 5:54 pm, Updated: Aug. 28, 2023 6:09 pm

CEDAR RAPIDS — Trent Dirks removes his belt, shoes and items from his pockets and places them in a plastic airport screening bin, while his service dog, Tracer, sits patiently at his side.

A transportation security officer ushers them to a walk-through metal detector and explains the screening process. The white Labrador playfully licks Dirks’ as he listens.

The man and dog walk through the metal detector together, which alarms from Tracer’s leash and harness. The security officer directs them to turn around and walk back through. Dirks tells Tracer to sit and puts the leash in the Lab’s mouth to hold as he walks through the detector by himself. It doesn’t alarm this time.

Dirks rejoins Tracer, who has been sitting patiently 6 feet away. Dirks takes the leash out of Tracer’s mouth. The officer kneels down and gently pats down and inspects Tracer’s harness. The pair then walks through the detector again together.

The officer swabs Dirks’ hands with a cotton cloth to test for possible explosives residue.

The walk-through Monday at The Eastern Iowa Airport in Cedar Rapids was part of a screening demonstration organized by Iowa Republican U.S. Rep. Ashley Hinson. Hinson, of Marion, has been working with TSA officials to ease challenges veterans and those with disabilities face when traveling with service animals.

Dirks, a Grundy Center native and retired U.S. Army sergeant, served in Afghanistan and, like many veterans, suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder following his deployment. He found support through Retrieving Freedom in Waverly. The organization trains service dogs for veterans, and Dirks was paired with his canine companion, Tracer, who accompanied him to a hospital for intensive treatment and now lives with him.

Hinson met Dirks and Tracer when she visited Retrieving Freedom in 2021. The duo has inspired her efforts in Congress to improve veterans’ mental health care access, and she invited Dirks as her guest at this year’s State of the Union address. Hinson said she learned of some of the challenges Dirks and other veterans with service animals face when going through airport security.

“TSA is intimating, regardless of who you are,” Dirks told reporters. “Or it can be really intimidating, but then you add disabilities or traveling with a four-legged service animal and it just creates additional challenges. You want to make sure that your service animal is properly trained going through TSA or any public space.”

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One particular worry for those with service animals, Dirks said, is being separated from their animal during the screening process — even if just by feet.

“You want to make sure that service animal is properly trained, so you can separate 6-foot between that dog so you can walk through without alarming the metal detector, and the dog behaves and stays in a sitting position,” Dirks said. “That’s one of the biggest challenges that I face going through TSA. Obviously, Tracer is pretty well trained … but that is a concern, I would say, for someone going through TSA.”

TSA will not separate owners from their service animal. Passengers, though, must tell the screening officer that they are traveling with a service animal, and both they and their service animal must go through a metal detector and/or be patted down, according to the agency. If the metal detector alarms, the owner and the service animal will undergo additional screening.

Iowa TSA Federal Security Director John Bright said those who have concerns about screening can ask to speak with a supervisor or passenger support specialist during the process. TSA also offers screening information and assistance to travelers through TSA Cares at (855) 787-2227 and at

Hinson said one of the reasons she engaged Dirks and the TSA was to establish a standard, “so everywhere you travel you’re going to experience that same procedure so we make it as easy as possible for veterans and service animals to travel.”

Bright said TSA uses a standard operating procedure at all airports when processing service animals through the checkpoint.

Bright encouraged passengers with service animals to contact TSA Cares within 72 hours of their flight so they know what to expect during the airport security screening process, and to provide advance notice to local TSA officials.

With the COVID-19 national emergency over, “we want more people to be traveling” and feel comfortable doing so, Hinson said.

”No matter what challenge you may face, whether it’s a disability that requires you have a service animal, or a medical challenge (such as insulin pumps) … we just want to make sure people feel comfortable traveling and know what their options are,“ she said.

Overall, Dirks said his experience going through TSA security Monday went well. Beyond TSA screening, Dirks said there are also inconsistencies among airlines “and it can be very challenging trying to navigate an airlines policies and procedures” flying with and registering a service animal.

“And each airline is different in what they require” to register a service animal to fly, he said.

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