It seems that every day there's a story in the news about how somewhere in America a service dog is helping a veteran cope with the many wounds of war and gradually make the long transition back to life at home.
For me, seeing this is a dream come true. From Southern Louisiana, to Tucson to San Diego to New York, America is beginning to understand the limitless potential of service dogs in helping the war-wounded return to healthy and happy lives.
As I've written here at HuffPost, these are no ordinary dogs we're talking about. They are the equivalent of elite commandos, called on to give their all. Screening a dog for requisite traits like patience, intelligence and confidence, and then training a dog to observe and react to subtle changes in an environment or in an owner's behavior, is a lengthy and expensive process.
On average, the process which is undertaken by a team of qualified professional trainers, can cost anywhere between $10,000 and $60,000 per dog. If there's a bit of sticker shock at this number, keep in mind that service dogs will often provide care for a decade or more. If you consider the costs over an equivalent amount of time for hospital treatment, medication and doctor's visits, the price tag looks significantly different.
But even so, in the words of the famous MasterCard marketing campaign, the life of a single soldier who has served his or her country is literally priceless. And that's exactly what these dogs do -- save lives.
One veteran, 27-year-old James McQuoid, recently told CNN that after returning from Iraq he was crippled by flashbacks, nightmares, and anxiety -- in other words, post-traumatic stress disorder.
"I'd stay in my house all the time," McQuoid said. "Windows were blacked out. I had cameras on the outside so I could monitor the surrounding area. ... The outside scared the hell out of me."
But McQuoid says that after he received his service dog, Iggie, who offers McQuoid a 24/7 support system that would be unachievable by any other means, everything changed.
"Without Iggie, I would still be in my house... probably divorced from my wife and very estranged from my son," McQuoid said. "And everything would continue to just fall on me until eventually I either decided it was time to end it and die, or just give up."
Fortunately, the tide is starting to turn, and service dogs are being recognized by the military, healthcare professionals, and, most of all, veterans themselves, as a crucial tool in the road to long-term recovery.
Now it's time to step things up. My dream is that one day every veteran in need of a service dog will receive that dog. It's a dream that I'm working toward, as I turn 90 this August, and as the head of Vets Helping Heroes (VHH), an organization that raises money to train service dogs for veterans. And every day, we're winning the war, with people across the country opening their hearts to the needs of people who have selflessly sacrificed so much.
VHH has helped more than 60 veterans get the dogs they need. But we're looking to do more. We want to see hundreds more dogs properly trained to treat the veterans still returning from the Middle East. We want each and every single one of our troops to have a shot at living a happy and fulfilling life back home.
What can you do? You can tell your friends, your family and your colleagues about the untapped resource that service dogs represent. You can learn more to help another veteran receive a dog he or she needs. You can support us online. You can tell us your own story about a service dog that has saved a life.
Join us as we work to pay back the debt we owe our troops by making available to all of them this beautiful and powerful resource for recovery. Let's do what it takes to make them as proud of us as we are of them.