In dog he trusts: Service dog, Army vet heal each other

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AUBURN — As he told stories of how his service dog, Tuesday, has helped “heal his soul,” 17-year Army veteran Luis Carlos Montalvan’s voice cracked with emotion.

“It’s a lengthy process” to get a service dog, Montalvan told the audience of about 50 people at the Auburn Public Library on Monday night. Montalvan, best-selling author of “Until Tuesday” and “Tuesday Tucks Me In,” told how he and his golden retriever saved each other. 

Being matched with Tuesday was like speed dating, he said. “In like a round robin, you get to know each other and then you and the trainer assess the match.” The process takes a couple of weeks.

A former captain in the U.S. Army who served in the war in Iraq, Montalvan earned the Combat Action Badge, two Bronze Stars, and a Purple Heart. In his book, “Until Tuesday,” Montalvan describes his life dealing with his physical wounds and crippling post-traumatic stress disorder and how the love between dog and man helped heal them both.

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Tuesday was trained to assist the disabled, and had lived among prisoners and at a home for troubled boys. Trusting or connecting with a human was difficult until he found Montalvan.

“I was one of the first,” he said of getting a service dog, adding it took about six months. Today, it takes about two years. “There are not enough dogs for vets,” he said.

“No one knows what vets have suffered.” Bonding with a dog can help, he said.

Montalvan said he is pushing for service dogs for everyone with disabilities, not just veterans.

“Any breed of dog can be a service dog,” he said. “You tend to see more medium-size dogs because of the perception that they are less aggressive, which isn’t really true,” he said.

“Just now, PTSD is becoming a household term because of Iraq,” he said. “People have a tendency to disbelieve how debilitating (a mental disability can be).”

Christy Gardner, 33, of Lewiston, attended the book signing with her service dog, Moxie, a golden retriever. She had read Montalvan’s book several years earlier.

“The book is excellent,” she said. “It tells the day-to-day what (living with PTSD is) really like,” adding that it is not easy to talk to family about her own experiences. She retired from the U.S. Army seven years ago and has only just recently been able to talk to her mother about her service.

Gardner suffered a brain and spinal cord injury. Her left leg is amputated below the knee. Moxie has been her service dog for five years and is trained for seizure alert for the brain injury and assists her when she uses a wheelchair.

Gardner described Moxie as her “battle buddy.” Moxie helps her navigate when people and her environment change. “She’s that one constant.” 

Moxie “is definitely an icebreaker,” Gardner said. People will stop to see her dog and then ask her about her leg. “Sometimes the attention is unwanted,” she said. One example: “when I’m trying to get through the grocery store!”

Gardner volunteers for Veterans Adaptive Sports and Training at Pineland Farms in New Gloucester. She recently graduated from the University of Southern Maine with a degree in recreation therapy and did an internship at the VA. She currently works for a kennel in Turner where veterans are brought in for puppy therapy.

“Who can’t smile when they play with a puppy?” she said.

“PTSD is worse than amputations,” Montalvan said, and then told the audience the story of Lewis “Chesty” Puller, the most decorated Marine in U.S. History and how his son, Lewis Burwell Puller Jr., lost both legs and a hand in the Vietnam War in 1968.

“He didn’t die because he lost his legs in Vietnam,” Montalvan said. “He died in 1994 from inner wounds that never healed.”

“We like to think we have unconditional love in our lives,” he said. But divorce happens, jobs come and go and people die — relationships can be fleeting. “Where I lost trust in the Army that I love, where I lost trust in my government, where I lost trust in family members — Tuesday — I can trust him,” Montalvan said.

“The most lovely thing to see is someone who doesn’t like animals who begins to fall in love with them,” Montalvan said of his mother coming to accept Tuesday laying on a certain rug and sleeping on the bed. One day she came around and said, ‘He’s a good ‘ol soul,” he said.

Martha Palmer, of Lisbon, came to hear Montalvan speak because her son is in the Army and has done five combat tours. He just returned from Germany. Palmer found the book hard to read because she related it to her son’s experience. “He doesn’t talk about it,” she said.

Christine Cook, of Lewiston, attended because she is a dog lover and had previously read the book.

“I have a couple friends affected by one war or another — but I really came to see the dog,” she admitted. Her father taught dog obedience for 10 years. He also served in World War II and didn’t talk about it, she said.

Galen Stockford, of Winthrop, served in Desert Storm in 1991. He attended the event because of an interest in PTSD and its effects.

When asked, “What’s next?” by an audience member, Montalvan said, “We’re on a mission — I can’t deal with what’s going on — with Veteran’s Affairs. It’s very much a mission of advocacy. If we can help in any way, send us a note.

“We just signed for a few more literary works — so that’s in the works,” he said. The movie rights for “Until Tuesday” have recently been taken on by a new producer. Montalvan said he has no idea who he wants to play him.

He closed by summarizing German philosopher Immanuel Kant’s rules of happiness: “I wish you all to have something to do, someone to love and something to hope for.”

Books-A-Million was on site selling copies of Montalvan’s books. The store will have a few autographed copies available for sale. Ten percent of the proceeds were donated to the APL.

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