A small way to give back to veterans who gave so much

Sen. Al Franken
U.S. Sen. Al Franken, D-MN.
Image courtesy of U.S. Senate

By Al Franken

In January, I met a wounded vet with severe post traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, at an Inaugural event in Washington. Luis Montalvan had been an Army intelligence officer in 2003, when he was gravely wounded in Anbar Province. When I met Luis, he was walking with a cane and accompanied by his service dog, a beautiful golden retriever named Tuesday. Luis told me that without Tuesday he couldn't have made it to the event.

Tuesday can anticipate Luis's panic attacks by changes in his breathing or perspiration and then avert them by nuzzling Luis and calming him down. Tuesday reminds his master to take his medications. He can wake Luis from debilitating dreams. After hearing about all that Tuesday does for Luis, not the least of which is elevating his sense of well-being, I made it my business to learn everything I could about service dogs and veterans.

Other vets I talked to said their dogs helped them reconnect with their community. After all, you have to take a dog out. As one vet told me, "When you go out in a wheelchair, people avert their eyes and walk past. But when you have a dog, they talk to you."

The VA has been providing seeing-eye dogs for decades, but it does not provide many other kinds of service dogs to veterans. A non-profit donated Tuesday to Luis. Other veterans I met also received their service dogs from non-profits, supported by donations from private donors.

The all-volunteer military has necessitated multiple deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan -- with some soldiers and Marines now on their sixth tours. Because each successive deployment brings with it a greater likelihood of mental health problems, veterans of those two operations are suffering truly alarming rates of PTSD and depression. Male veterans are twice as likely as their civilian counterparts to die from suicide.

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One reason I ran for the Senate was to do right by our veterans, and my first piece of legislation was designed to address this epidemic of mental health issues, if in just a small way.

I presented a Senate bill, signed into law last month, that creates a public/private partnership to share the cost of providing approximately 200 highly trained service dogs to veterans who have been wounded physically and mentally. The VA will study the benefits to these vets.

My strong belief is that these veterans will require less medication, reduced human care and fewer hospitalizations, and will become more productive citizens. To me, it's enough that the dogs simply make these vets feel better. But I hope that the study will demonstrate a strong return on investment and that before long we will see an expansion of this program.

Often at funerals for our fallen, I remember these moving words from President Ronald Reagan about those who died in foreign wars: "[M]ost of them were boys when they died, and they gave up two lives -- the one they were living and the one they would have lived. When they died, they gave up their chance to be husbands and fathers and grandfathers. They gave up their chance to be revered old men. They gave up everything for their country, for us. All we can do is remember."

I think of those veterans who survived battle only to struggle with wounds of war, both physical and mental. Many of them gave up two lives too. But we can do more than remember. We can act, and make a difference.

Al Franken, D-Minn., is a member of the U.S. Senate.