A 17-year Army veteran turned his struggle into a career dedicated to advocacy
BY ANGELA BARBUTI
Luis Carlos Montalván uses his experience in what he calls “the war after the war” to advocate for and spread awareness of the hardships veterans encounter that civilians may forget.
A recipient of a Purple Heart and two Bronze Stars for his service in Iraq, he now lives on the Upper West Side with his service dog Tuesday, who assists him with the physical and mental challenges of war’s aftermath. In 2011, his memoir, “Until Tuesday: A Wounded Warrior and the Golden Retriever Who Saved Him,” became a bestseller. Besides the time he spends public speaking on the topic, he is also earning his second master’s at Columbia and has even introduced children’s books to his growing list of projects.
Montalván is one of the subjects chronicled in “Buried Above Ground,” a documentary that sheds light on the effects of post-traumatic stress disorder. The film premieres on June 28 on the World Channel as part of the America ReFramed series.
What do you want people to learn about PTSD from the documentary?We hope a candid and deep discussion about post-traumatic stress disorder is able to be facilitated from the film. From the stories of the Katrina survivor, the domestic and child abuse survivor and myself, that PTSD will go from being what it is now, a household term, to something that is better understood.
How does Tuesday help you? Explain what he’s trained to do. He helps me physically and psychologically. Although the film is about PTSD, I have some serious physical disabilities too. He does things like help me sleep. I don’t have them as frequently, but I used to get very bad nightmares, so he can wake me up and snuggle and put me at ease. He helps me walk. He has a handle on his harness which helps me with balance. He also helps me with mental balance. Obviously the stress part of PTSD is significant, so he is able to mitigate most of the symptoms of PTSD.
There’s a scene in the film where a taxi driver doesn’t let you in because of Tuesday. What’s it like traveling around the city with him and what kind of discrimination have you faced?First of all, things have gotten better in terms of access issues related to service dogs. But mostly that’s because of advocates fighting back, not because of the right reason, which would be education in the form of teaching and public service announcements and things of that nature. Most of this education has come because of lawsuits and media that has spread situations like the ones we’ve experienced. That said, there’s still quite a problem in the city and the country that people with disabilities who have service dogs face. And it varies from restaurants to companies of any sort to security personnel and law enforcement, merchants of all kinds, and even the government. There are so many employees and owners of various private and public sector organizations who are ignorant of the law and deny people with disabilities access. And that’s a very painful thing because it’s a liberty and a freedom. And when you’re denied that freedom, it is a gross violation of basic civil liberties.
How did you meet Senator Al Franken and what has he done to aid the cause?I met him at an inaugural ball for President Obama in 2009. And I mentioned to him, as I mentioned back then to so many people, that it would be sensational if he would consider championing a piece of legislation to partner service dogs with veterans. This is a very badly needed form of assistance for people with disabilities and there was no governmental support for it. There’s no funding. And the government pays for wheelchairs, has Medicare, does all kinds of things for people, but as significant a help as dogs like Tuesday are, there’s no support for that financially. So, thankfully, he listened and his first piece of legislation as a U.S. senator was the Service Dogs for Veterans Act.
Was writing “Until Tuesday” a form of therapy for you? The original intention of the book was to discuss mostly what I would call the war after the war. The war that comes after, the battle that veterans and their families face after war, because that war is too often forgotten. So it was to really elucidate the challenges and problems, but also the goodness, especially in the form of Tuesday. To be able to help people of all sorts, even those who were not veterans, move on in their recovery and lives. Nowadays, there’s been a lot said about writing as a form of catharsis. But back then, that was not common. There were no writing warrior workshops. I wasn’t really writing it for therapy, although it certainly did become therapy.
There is a movie being made based on the book. How involved will you be in that?Yeah, it’s been bouncing around like a lot of other movies. They’re still in pre-production at this point. At least in my case, I don’t want any major motion picture to lose its essence, so Tuesday and I will be pretty involved.
You’ve written children’s books as well. What feedback have you gotten from teachers and parents?The children’s books are really aimed at helping to educate and delight children with a discussion of living and thriving with disabilities. Teachers, parents, librarians and lots of other adults involved in education have found the book extremely useful in discussing subjects like mental health that too often go undiscussed. Because it’s a dark subject. It’s difficult for anyone to discuss that, let alone to discuss it with a child. I was in the army for 17 years, so I never thought I was going to be an author. Life just happened that way. Towards the end of writing “Until Tuesday,” I really thought that writing a children’s book would hopefully be an important means to reaching other generations.
What are your future plans?Really to keep spreading hopeful and informative messages. I think one of the big bright lights in the 21st century is a focus on mental health. In the 20th century, there was very little focus on it. It was very dark and unknown. Because of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan in particular and warriors’ ability, willingness and courage to candidly discuss very serious mental health conditions, civilians are emboldened to do the same. And really what we’re doing is continuing to speak about trauma and recovery and healing in ways that hopefully help people better their own lives.
To learn more about Luis, visit www.luiscarlosmontalvan.com