I won the recount in my first race on January 5, 2009, in time to be seated with the rest of my Senate class. But Norm Coleman filed what is called an election contest, and I had to cool my jets until that was settled.
Mainly, I spent my time asking folks for money to pay for a legal battle that I would win – several times. But Republicans wanted to keep me out of the Senate for as long as possible. Ultimately, it would take eight full months between my election and my swearing in. When I was, I became the 60th member of the Democratic caucus, and we passed the Affordable Care Act a few months later.
But there was no way was I going to miss Barack Obama’s inaugural. Afterall, it was history. I believe the crowd for his inauguration was even bigger than Trump’s.
I was invited to all kinds of neat events that Inaugural week. But the one that I was not going to miss was a gala of sorts for the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America. I had been to each theater four times with the USO, and a lot of the focus of my campaign was not just on those wars, but on the men and women coming home from them.
There at the IAVA event I met retired Army captain Luis Montalvan. I also met Tuesday, his beautiful golden retriever. Luis told me he wouldn’t have been able be there had it not been for Tuesday.
Luis had served as an intelligence officer in Iraq, where he was seriously wounded. He returned with two Bronze Stars, a Purple Heart, and severe PTSD, which manifested itself in panic attacks, nightmares, and acute agoraphobia (the fear of leaving your home), all of which he self-medicated with alcohol.
Then a nonprofit contacted Luis and offered to partner him with a service dog. Desperate for any possible solution to his mounting problems, Luis went to the training facility in Upstate New York, where he met Tuesday.
I asked Luis how Tuesday had changed his life.
“Well, Tuesday can anticipate my panic attacks by observing changes in my breathing or smelling my perspiration. So, she’ll nuzzle me and prevent me from having a panic attack.”
“If I’m having a nightmare and start thrashing around, Tuesday will jump on the bed and wake me up. And he broke my isolation. You know, you have to take a dog out a couple times a day. People don’t like going up to scruffy-looking wounded vets. But they do like coming up to a scruffy-looking wounded vet who has a beautiful dog.”
Luis told me that, thanks to Tuesday’s help, he had turned his life around, enrolling in journalism school. After graduation, he went on to write a number of best-selling books about his experiences, including a couple of children’s books about him and Tuesday, and became an advocate for other veterans. My five-year old grandson, Joe, just loved his book, Tuesday Takes Me There.
In the period between the inaugural and my swearing-in, I made it my business to learn as much as I could about service dogs. I talked with parents who now could go to the mall with their autistic son, who loved taking care of his service dog, even as the service dog was taking care of him. I visited a training facility in Minnesota where I saw a German shepherd pick up a nickel with her teeth.
As soon as I got to the Senate, I worked with my staff to draw up a bill that would fund a three-year Department of Veterans Affairs study pairing two hundred service dogs with veterans suffering from invisible wounds and measure the benefits to each veteran against the costs of training each dog, which were not insubstantial, even when offset by all the stray nickels they could pick up. If it worked, we’d have the evidence to argue for expanding the program more widely.
I needed a Republican co-sponsor, so I called Johnny Isakson from Georgia, who served on the Veterans Affairs Committee. Johnny loved the idea and immediately signed on, and the bill sailed through as an amendment to a defense authorization bill.
That was the beginning of an eleven-year process that will conclude when President Biden signs the PAWS (Puppies Assisting Wounded Servicemembers for Veterans Therapy) Act which the House passed in May and the Senate last Thursday. Not surprisingly, the VA screwed up a few times along the way, and the three-year study became a ten-year study. The results were finally released this March and were conclusive: Veterans with PTSD stand to benefit tremendously from service dogs.
According to a 2016 report from the VA, an average of twenty veterans die by suicide each day. Sadly, Luis was one of them. In December 2016, Luis took his own life in a hotel room in Texas. Despite this tragedy, I still believe in the power of the idea that he and Tuesday (who wasn’t with Luis at the time) inspired. And it is a reminder of just how imposing this challenge is, even if we all work together and do our best to address it.
Still, as we worked together on this issue, Luis had become more than just a symbol, more than just an ally in an important cause. He became my friend. And I wish that we could celebrate this victory together.
Get tickets to see Al during his 15-city “The Only Former U.S. Senator Currently on Tour” Tour.
Subscribe to The Al Franken Podcast on: