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Veteran lobbies Congress to help raise money for service dogs

The House of Representatives approved a bill that would help train over 200 service dogs for veterans. It is now pending in the Senate.
Service dog
Posted at 1:44 PM, Jul 03, 2024

In a small town on Maryland's eastern shore, Paul Sullivan and his wife Veronica are raising four boys. She is a teacher. He's now a stay-at-home dad.

Previously, Sullivan served six years in the Marines, including a tour in Iraq in 2005. After an honorable discharge, he went into law enforcement, but integrating into civilian life was challenging.

"Even if you try to speak about it, some things you talk about, you know, it wasn't dinner conversation. That wasn't something that anybody wanted to hear when you came home at night. And so for a long time, I just kept it inside," Sullivan explained. "It just became too big for me to handle on my own. And that's where Sal comes in."

Sal is a 5-year-old black Labrador who was trained by America's VetDogs. The organization trains service and guide dogs for veterans and first responders in need. While in the waiting room at the VA, Sullivan overheard someone else talking about the NHL's Washington Capitals' first puppy with a purpose, Captain. Sullivan spoke with his provider about whether a dog could help him, and then he applied for a service dog. Over a year later, he was paired with Sal.

Sullivan has anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder, but Sal has completely changed his life. Sullivan used to suffer from night terrors multiple times a week, leaving him habitually tired. Sal is trained to interrupt Sullivan's nightmare and nudge him awake. "With Sal, it's really helped, not just with the nightmare interruption, but they're spread out. It's few and far between. I think there's just this comfort level of knowing that he's there that has definitely been helpful," he said.

Veronica says Sal is Sullivan's "dreamcatcher," and with the 5-year-old black Lab by their side, the Sullivans are able to go out more as a family.

"He used to be afraid to fly, and [now] we fly all the time. Now we're always going places, taking the kids to hockey games, to baseball games, lots of different stuff," she said.

Being out in public now, Sullivan says he can focus on Sal and the kids, which helps keep his mind off any potential threats he would perceive.

Sullivan is so passionate about Sal's impact on his life that he's lobbying Congress to try to pay it forward. He's taken a handful of trips to Capitol Hill to meet with lawmakers and advocate for the Working Dog Commemorative Coin Act. The bill would prompt the Treasury Department to mint commemorative coins, and the surcharges from the coin sales would serve as a fundraiser. The House approved the bill in May, and it is now pending in the Senate. If the bill were passed and all the coins were to sell out, America's VetDogs would raise $10.5 million. That's enough money to train 210 service dogs like Sal.

"I think that if you ask any of the veterans or first responders that have received a dog from America's VetDogs, they'll tell you that they don't feel deserving. Like there's somebody else that's worse. No matter what it is, there's somebody else that has a worse problem than you, and they deserve a dog," Sullivan said.

America's VetDogs has placed more than 1,000 service dogs since 2003. Beyond the fundraising, the organization hopes the coin sales would help educate the public about the important role service dogs play in the lives of veterans and their families.