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Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., column: Provide service dogs to veterans who need them

By Al Franken WASHINGTON -- In my first week as a U.S. senator, I had the privilege of participating in the Supreme Court confirmation hearing for Judge Sonia Sotomayor. The hearing was historic -- but as I prepare to introduce my first piece of ...

By Al Franken

WASHINGTON -- In my first week as a U.S. senator, I had the privilege of participating in the Supreme Court confirmation hearing for Judge Sonia Sotomayor.

The hearing was historic -- but as I prepare to introduce my first piece of legislation, I've been thinking about an encounter I had away from the lights and cameras.

In January, I met Luis Carlos Montalvan and his service dog named Tuesday, a beautiful golden retriever, at an inaugural event in Washington.

Former Army Capt. Montalvan had been an intelligence officer in Iraq, rooting out corruption in Anbar Province. In 2005, Montalvan was the target of an assassination attempt. Now he walks with a cane and suffers from severe post-traumatic stress disorder.

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Montalvan explained that he couldn't have made it to the inauguration if it weren't for his dog.

As someone who's spent time with our troops in Iraq and Afghanistan on USO tours and met wounded warriors at Walter Reed and Bethesda, I feel a deep obligation to the men and women who've risked their lives on our behalf.

After I met Montalvan, I did some research. Service dogs such as Tuesday can be of immense benefit to vets suffering from physical and emotional wounds. Yes, they provide companionship. But they can also detect changes in a person's breathing, perspiration or scent to anticipate and ward off an impending panic attack with some well-timed nuzzling.

They are trained to let their masters know when it's time to take their medication and to wake them from terrifying nightmares.

Service dogs raise their masters' sense of well-being. There is evidence to suggest that increasing their numbers would reduce the alarming suicide rate among veterans, decrease the number of hospitalizations and lower the cost of medications and human care.

Veterans report that service dogs help break their isolation. People will often avert their eyes when they see a wounded veteran. But when the veteran has a dog, the same people will come up, say "hi" to pet the dog and then strike up a conversation.

Montalvan got Tuesday from one of the nonprofit agencies around the country that trains service dogs. I visited one of them, Hearing and Service Dogs of Minnesota, and saw dogs opening doors and answering phones. I saw a German shepherd named Pepsi pick up a nickel off a tile floor and give it to a young woman in a wheelchair.

Unfortunately, few of these service dogs are available to veterans such as Montalvan. It costs on average about $20,000 to train a service dog and another $5,000 to place the dog with the veteran.

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It is my strong belief that a service dog will more than pay for itself over its life, and my bill is designed to determine the return on investment with a pilot program that provides service dogs to hundreds of veterans.

My bill will help train a statistically significant number of dogs to measure the benefits to veterans with physical and emotional wounds. The program would be monitored and refined over a three-year period to optimize its effectiveness.

Frankly, I believe it is enough simply to improve the lives of those of whom we asked so much. But this program isn't just the right thing to do. It's the smart thing to do. This is win, win, win, win.

Franken, a Democrat, is the junior U.S. senator from Minnesota.

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