Marine veteran from Tacoma lobbies Congress to bring home military canines

Want to get something done in Congress? Bring a dog.

It couldn’t hurt. As she looked into a hearing room packed with reporters, supporters and four canines on Wednesday, Rep. Dina Titus was reminded of a similar lesson she learned in her statehouse days. (Basically, if you want to have your bill passed, just show up with a dog, the Nevada Democrat remembered.)

Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla., saw dog power in even more profound ways.

“Dogs are magical creatures, because they can make a rusty, cranky old curmudgeon like Don Young seem almost lovable,” she said. “So, hats off to the dogs.”

Young, the Alaska Republican who pointed out that he was “the only dog musher in the whole Congress,” and others were on hand to help efforts by the American Humane Association to change rules under which military dogs move to civilian life.

Robin Ganzert, president and chief executive of the American Humane Association, said that former military dogs are not guaranteed to be retired in America and might not be reunited with their former handlers. Her group wants the Department of Defense to mandate that all military working dogs be retired on U.S. soil so that they are given military transport back from their war zones. And it wants to ensure that the dogs’ former handlers are provided first opportunity to adopt them.

The group also wants dogs working for contractors to be given the same benefits as those that are formally part of the military.

Three former handlers of military dogs Ryky, Cila and Thor spoke in halting, emotional ways about the bonds they had with their animals — and how they jumped through major hoops to be reunited with them after their service ended.

“I told them if he’s 10 years old and has one leg, I’ll take him. They thought I was joking, but I was serious,” Marine veteran Deano Miller of Tacoma told NPR.

Miller in May was reunited with Thor, his military working dog from a 2010 deployment to Afghanistan’s Helmand Province. Miller had been trying to adopt Thor ever since then, but the canine had missions with four more handlers in Afghanistan before the military was ready to release him.

“Everything’s a lot better now at home, and it wouldn’t be possible if I didn’t have him,” Miller said.

The dogs that took over a hearing room of the House Budget Committee had served in Iraq and Afghanistan, sniffing for explosives, helping rescue fallen soldiers, enduring multiple tours. They carry some of the same post-traumatic issues as returning soldiers.

“We had some challenging times in Iraq, but we both made it out safely,” Army veteran Jason Bos said of his companion, Cila, who served with him on nearly 100 missions. “Now Cila is a couch potato. She’s retired. She can eat what she wants. She can get fat … just be like a regular retired person.”

While the American Humane Association is rounding up support in Congress, Ganzert said the Department of Defense could handle the changes administratively, without the need for legislation.