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Editorial

Casper Critters


Assistance Animals Give a Helping Paw to America's Veterans and Others



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11/01/2012 - By Gayle M. Irwin

I recently finished reading an incredible book, Until Tuesday: A Wounded Warrior and the Golden Retriever Who Saved Him. I was privileged to meet and briefly speak with author and former Army Captain Luis Carlos Montalvan. Listening to Captain Montalvan, witnessing his service dog, Tuesday, and then reading about them in Luis' book, touched my heart and soul. I've met a few service dogs and their human partners in times past; coupled with Captain Montalvan's recent presentation and reading about him and Tuesday in the book, I possess a deeper appreciation for the service that assistance animals provide – as well as a deeper understanding about the horrors of war and the effects upon our service men and women.

In light of Veteran's Day and my encounters with Luis, Tuesday and their story, I spent a bit of time researching and learning about animal assistance programs for veterans. The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs will pay for guide dogs for blind veterans, hearing dogs for the hearing impaired, and assistance dogs for veterans with other physical disabilities. However, the agency ruled in September that it would not pay for service dogs for veterans suffering from PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder): http://usnews.nbcnews.com/_news/2012/09/06/13708645-va-wont-cover-costs-of-service-dogs-assigned-for-ptsd-treatment. Yet, it will provide (and prescribe) nearly any type of pharmaceutical drug for treating mental and emotional distress.

Scientific studies show people with pets are less prone to depression, are more active physically, and have lower blood pressure and cholesterol. Dogs, cats and other animals trained as therapy pets visit nursing homes and hospitals and help lessen anxiety among those with whom they spend time. Emotional support animals (ESA) are used with people who have an emotional disability, and can be prescribed by a licensed mental health provider (learn more at the National Service Animal Registry website: http://www.nsarco.com/emotionalsupportanimals.html).

Our wounded warriors can use such assistance. The Pentagon reported earlier this year that suicide among American active-duty military personnel rose to an average of one per day. Additionally, according to the Army Times in 2010, about 18 veterans each day committed suicide. It's estimated that 30 to 40 percent of veterans suffer from PTSD. These are startling and scary statistics.

Capt. Montalvan suffers from PTSD as well as remnants from traumatic physical injuries to his brain and vertebrae from an incident in Iraq. He also experienced nightmares, sleeplessness, hypervigilance, and isolation, common threads in PTSD.

Although his condition improved after being partnered with Tuesday, his service dog, Montalvan will never be completely healed, either physically or emotionally. He relies on Tuesday to get through his days and his nights. Tuesday is trained to respond to Luis' needs, the physical and the emotional. Tuesday provides Luis balance, steadying him on the bumpy, concrete sidewalks and helping him navigate stairs (Luis walks with a cane). Tuesday provides Luis balance emotionally as well, navigating the signals of anxiety as they walk through towns and travel on subways or airplanes.

Luis admits in his book, "I don't look exactly like a typical disabled person with a service dog." And for that, he, and numerous others, have been and are discriminated against. Service animals who are trained to perform tasks to help disabled people wear a vest, often with the words "service animal" or "working animal" on them; there are laws which allow such animals into places where most typical "pets" are not such as restaurants and other public buildings, airplanes and public transportation, as well as housing. However, Luis recounts numerous times the discrimination he encountered.

Although Emotional Service Animals are not always allowed in the same places as certified assistance animals, there are federally protected rights for these animals and their human partners, including flying on an airline and not being allowed into "no pet policy" housing.

I am grateful those who need such physical or emotional service can and do receive that. Numerous others do not. May this Veteran's Day be the eye-opener we need to recognize and honor those service men and women who have lost limbs, experienced traumatic brain injury and PTSD, or perhaps even suffer silently yet can greatly benefit from the devotion and care a service animal provides. Our wounded warriors deserve whatever medical treatment suits them best… and sometimes that's lick in the face or a paw on the knee from a four-footed creature that adores (and sacrifices) for them.

If interested in learning more about Captain Montalvan and Tuesday, visit: http://until-tuesday.com/.

Gayle M. Irwin is the author of several books about her dogs. Walking in Trust: Lessons Learned with My Blind Dog, a devotional-style book, was released last month, and two short stories appear in new editions of Chicken Soup for the Soul. Learn more at www.gaylemirwin.com.

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