Meeting with vet, service dog inspired Franken's bill

  • Article by: ERIC ROPER , Star Tribune
  • Updated: July 23, 2009 - 12:11 AM

"It was really like a dream come true,'' the 36-year-old New Yorker said after learning that Franken's first measure would start a pilot program to provide dogs for veterans.

Luis Carlos Montalvan, a disabled Iraq war veteran, was having trouble sleeping Saturday when he received a startling late-night e-mail from a friend: a chance encounter he had months earlier with Democratic Sen. Al Franken was about to produce Franken's first piece of legislation. The bill, which Franken introduced Wednesday, would create a pilot program to provide service dogs for injured veterans.

"It was really like a dream come true," said Montalvan, a journalism student in New York City, who had suggested the idea to Franken months earlier at the presidential inaugural ball in Washington.

Montalvan explained to the soon-to-be senator that his service dog, Tuesday, helps him cope with several fractured vertebrae and a serious head injury he suffered during an attack near the Iraq-Syrian border in 2007.

"[Franken] was very genuinely interested and concerned," recalled the 36-year-old, who had taken the golden retriever to the ball.

A couple of weeks later, Montalvan got a call on his cell phone "out of the blue." On the other end was a familiar voice: "Hey Luis, it's Al."

Though he talked to Franken for months after that about possible legislation, Montalvan had no idea it would be Franken's first bill until reading the e-mail that contained an op-ed Franken had written about the bill.

As more veterans return from Iraq, service dogs are emerging as an innovative way to provide vets with both mental and physical support. The animals, which undergo intensive training, help their owners retrieve items, remind them to take medication and, in Montalvan's case, help them keep their balance. Canine companionship also lessens the effects of post traumatic stress disorder, a growing problem for returning veterans.

"The way [Tuesday] helps me psychologically is at the very least equal to, if not more important than, the physical," said Montalvan, who walks with a cane.

Franken's legislation, which is an amendment to a 2010 military funding bill, would require the Department of Veterans Affairs to create a pilot program to train at least 200 service dogs through nonprofit organizations and give them to veterans with physical and mental disabilities.

After three years, the National Academies of Science must compile a report on the feasibility and benefit of providing veterans with service dogs.

"There is going to be a clear return on investment here," Franken said in an interview, adding that he would like to see it one day become a larger program.

"My hope is that at the end of this they'll go, 'A ha! These dogs pay for themselves or more than pay for themselves, we have fewer suicides, fewer incidents of hospitalization, less costs in prescription drugs and more productivity,' " Franken said.

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