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Marine veteran from Tacoma lobbies Congress to bring home military canines

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

Tacoma Marine veteran Deano Miller took his yellow labrador named Thor to the Capitol last week and asked lawmakers to compel the Defense Department to bring all of its deployed military working dogs back to the United States.

Thor was at his side for seven months in Afghanistan in 2010. They reunited in May, helping Miller cope with his experiences at war.

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

His furry companion could not hurt his chances with lawmakers. 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,” was 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.

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.

Miller had been trying to adopt Thor ever since he left Afghanistan, but the canine had missions with four more handlers in Afghanistan before the military was ready to release him.

“I was single. The dog was everything to me, literally,” he said. “I just wanted my dog back. I didn’t care about anything else.”

Now engaged to be married, Miller reunited with Thor in a well-publicized event at Sea-Tac Airport three months ago. Thor, distracted by a pack of TV cameras, did not recognize Miller.

“It kind of ruined it for me,” Miller admitted to reporters last week.

“But, as soon as we got home, everything was fine. He was following me around from Day 1. He’s my shadow.”

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