Friday, October 23, 2009




By Jason Hoppin
jhoppin@pioneerpress.com
Updated: 10/22/2009 11:55:44 PM CDT

Tardy to the Senate after an eight-month recount fight, Sen. Al Franken secured his first legislative win Thursday with the passage of a bill providing service dogs to veterans coping with the physical and psychological tolls of war.

Under the Service Dogs for Veterans Act, Veterans Affairs will provide about 200 service dogs to former service members. Half would go to people with mental disabilities and half to those dealing with physical ailments.

"I can't think of better folks to help than those who served our nation so honorably in the military," said Franken, who made several USO trips abroad as an entertainer. "It's a win-win-win all the way."

Franken proposed the legislation after visiting places like Hearing and Service Dogs of Minnesota, which has trained and provided nearly 300 dogs for needy owners since its founding in 1987.

Executive director and founder Al Peters said the wait list for such dogs is long, and a major barrier to providing them is cost. It takes $25,000 or more to train each dog, and his organization does not charge owners — all the money must be raised charitably.

Franken's bill, which will take some time to implement due to the time needed for training, will cost about $5 million. The VA will study the impacts dogs have on veterans' lives, including therapeutic benefits, whether the dogs reduce the cost of hospital stays and whether they help prevent suicides.

Franken said he became interested in the issue when he met a veteran at President Barack Obama's inauguration who told them he wouldn't have been able to attend without his service dog.

Peters' group and others like it have long provided service dogs to people with physical disabilities, helping them do things like open doors and turn on lights.

Recently, dogs have started to help vets suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and other mental ailments, which present different challenges for handlers training the dogs.

"This bill is encouraging us to look for more ways to address those issues," Peters said.

Minnesota Vietnam War vet Ken Stenzel, who has multiple sclerosis and uses a service dog, predicted they would help Iraq war veterans who have post-traumatic stress disorder.

"I can picture a vet waking up in a cold sweat. Having a dog like this come up to them and lick them will just make them feel so much better," Stenzel said.

The bill was attached to a defense appropriations bill, which passed the Senate on Thursday. The Senate version was co-sponsored by Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga.; Reps. Ed Whitfield, R-Ky., and Ron Klein, D-Fla., championed a companion provision in the House.

Jason Hoppin can be reached at 651-228-5445.