Life is great at 90. I turn the big 9-0 today and can only say that it's an incredible privilege to reach this age. I look at the society in which we live today with nearly nine decades of perspective, which includes the dark days of the Depression and World War II, but also the light of civil rights and decades of growth. I see around me signs of hope, progress and change. I see people striving to make the world a better place and working to make America a better country. And you know what? I see them succeeding.
People ask me what I want for my ninetieth birthday. I tell them I'll make it worth their while and get back to them on my hundredth. But in all seriousness, blessed with health (aches and pains notwithstanding), family and my beloved golden retriever, Cash, there's not much I can ask for. Except one thing.
At 90, I have a dream. A simple, achievable, but very powerful dream. For the past five years, as many HuffPost readers now know, I've been heading an organization called Vets Helping Heroes. VHH is dedicated to raising money to train special assistance dogs for wounded American troops returning from war in the Middle East.
These assistance dogs have proven to be unparalleled tools in helping our service men and women recovering from an array of horrible injuries. From spinal injury to brain damage to blindness and the dreaded, and all too common, PTSD, assistance dogs are allowing veterans to return to not just a normal life, but also a happy and healthy life.
The dogs are irreplaceable in fighting this battle. Beyond being able to predict seizures, block off personal space in public during the onset of a panic attack, alert authorities in case of an emergency, or lead a blind veteran around the obstacles of daily life, service and guide dogs are there for their owners twenty-four hours a day. They offer an emotional safety net and a constant companion that simply has no substitution.
My dream, then, is to see every American veteran returning from the post 9/11 conflicts who needs an assistant dog that's been properly screened and trained receive that dog. On the surface it might sound simple, as if we can just spring for some cute puppies to give to these veterans. But in truth, service and guide dogs are the equivalent of elite commandos, carefully screened for the right temperament, intelligence, and even the right look (you can read more about that here), and then intensively trained over the course of months by expert handlers and trainers.
The process can cost between $10,000 and $60,000. Needless to say, it's a price tag that a veteran coming home from fighting abroad simply cannot afford. And with government belt-tightening still going on, many of these veterans, whose lives would be literally transformed by an assistance dog, simply go without, relying on treatments that are sometimes inadequate.
So far, Vets Helping Heroes has raised enough money from folks around the country to train dozens of dogs for veterans. Now, in addition to these invaluable donations, we need to make assistance dogs a national issue. We need Americans to understand just how effective the dogs are in helping veterans make a fresh start back home. We need people to come together.
At 90, you'd think that I might be looking back -- thinking about my own days as a veteran after being freed from a Nazi POW camp, of my many years growing my career and raising my family, and of the honors I've received, both military and civilian. And of course, all this does mean a lot to me.
But the truth is I'm looking forward. I see the incredible sight of an America that treats it veterans with not just a respectful salute, but with the same measure of dignity and courage that veterans have dedicated to their country. That's my dream. It may be bad luck to say so, but my birthday wish is to see an assistance dog in the arms of every veteran who needs one. This year, I hope you'll help me blow out the candles.
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