13 New Veteran-Related Laws In Florida

Zak, a 2-year-old yellow Labrador, is one of the newest Paws for Patriots graduates. (June 2015)

Zak, a 2-year-old yellow Labrador, is one of the newest Paws for Patriots graduates. (June 2015)

Florida’s new law that expands access for service animals used by people with disabilities has received the most attention of the 13 veteran-related laws passed this year.

House Bill 71 not only expands the protected right to use a service dog to people with mental impairments but it also allows for a jail sentence if a public business denies access. And the new law also makes it a second degree misdemeanor for someone to pass off an untrained pet as a service animal.

“When people abuse things like that, it diminishes the service that that patriot has delivered to our country,” said Mike Prendergast, executive director of the Florida Department of Veterans Affairs. “And it diminishes our community’s ability to sort out and determine who the legitimate person is and who is using an animal and mislabeling that animal for illegitimate purposes.”

Part of the problem, Prendergast said, is that no one authority certifies service dogs and their training. And there’s inconsistency at the federal level on the use of service dogs for veterans with mental health issues like post-traumatic stress.

Mike Prendergast, executive director of the Florida Department of Veterans' Affairs, at a 2012 news conference in Tallahassee. Photo courtesy of Steven Rodriguez, WFSU.

Mike Prendergast, executive director of the Florida Department of Veterans’ Affairs, at a 2012 news conference in Tallahassee. Photo courtesy of Steven Rodriguez, WFSU.

Prendergast plans to suggest to U.S. Secretary of Veterans Affairs Bob McDonald that the federal VA adopt Florida’s guidelines for service animals.

He’s also pushing to put Florida on the cutting edge to handle future challenges that will confront veterans.

“From the burn pits, the oil fires over in the desert, the other environmental hazards that are over in Afghanistan that are over in the Iraqi desert that we’ve all been exposed to and we’re all going to have health challenges that will manifest themselves,” Prendergast said. “Whether it’s 10 years or whether it’s next year. We still want to be prepared for those health challenges.”

As an example, Prendergast said the Florida Veterans Foundation, established by the legislature, funded hyperbaric oxygen treatments for a limited number of veterans with traumatic brain injuries or TBI. That is despite the fact that the pressurized oxygen treatments are not a recognized treatment for brain injuries and some consider it controversial.

“Whether a peacetime veteran or combat veteran, we’ve managed to get some folks exposed to that and they’ve had remarkable recoveries from it,” Predergast said. “We need to explore the frontiers of medicine to take care of our veterans.”

And he wants that frontier to start with Florida’s 1.6 million veterans.

Florida Veteran-Related Legislation for 2015:

  1. HB 27 – Authorizes replacing the “V” on Florida Drivers Licenses with the word “Veteran”
  2. SB 7028 – Grants in-state tuition to veterans’ spouses and children using Post 9/11 GI education benefits
  3. SB 132 – Allows veterans to use alternative documentation for disabled parking permits renewals
  4. HB 329 – Authorizes military-related specialty license plates Woman Veteran, World War II Veteran and others
  5. HB 185 – Creates a public records exemption for the identification and location of current or former active-duty U.S. Armed Forces service members, Reserves and National Guard who served after September 11, 2001 and their spouses and children.
  6. HB 801 – Adds a memorial to the Capitol dedicated to the 241 U.S. Armed Forces who lost their lives in the Beirut barracks bombing attack October 23, 1983.
  7. HB 277 –Motels and hotels are required to waive minimum age requirements for active-duty military, Reserves and Guard who present valid identification.
  8. SB 184 – Authorizes absent uniformed services voters and overseas voters to use the federal write-in absentee ballot in any state or local election.
  9. HB 71 – Updates on the use of service animals to include people with a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits daily activity; makes it a second degree misdemeanor to deny access to a service dog accompanying a person with disabilities or a trainer; prohibits asking about the nature of an individual’s disability in order to determine if the service animal is legitimate; makes it a second degree misdemeanor to misrepresent a pet as a service animal or to misrepresent oneself as a qualified trainer.
  10. SB 686 – Grants a property tax exemption to leaseholds and improvements constructed and used to provide military housing on land owned by the federal government.
  11. HB 225 – Requires the state to only purchase U.S. and other state flags made in the United States and from domestic materials.
  12. HB 1069 – Allows for the expansion of the Veterans Courts program under certain conditions.
  13. HB 471 – Allows vehicles with a Disabled Veterans license plate to park for free in a local facility or lot with timed parking spaces with some restrictions.

Information on the veteran-related legislation was provided by the Florida Department of Veterans’ Affairs.

A Tale of Two Guide Dogs

Michael Jernigan poses with his companion and guide dog for the past eight years, Brittani, at her retirement ceremony in February.

Michael Jernigan poses with his companion and guide dog for the past eight years, Brittani, at her retirement ceremony in February at the St. Petersburg Yacht Club.

This is a story of two dogs serving their country’s veterans through the Southeastern Guide Dogs Paws for Patriots program.

There’s the “old girl” Brittani who has eased into retirement and the youngster Zak just graduated from “boot camp” still filled with puppy exuberance.

Brittani is a Goldador, a mix of Labrador and Golden Retriever, and was the longtime companion of Michael Jernigan of St. Petersburg, a Marine wounded by a roadside bomb in Iraq in 2004.

Jernigan lost both his eyes, had his forehead crushed, his right hand, left knee and leg torn up. When he was paired with Brittani in 2007, he said the attraction was immediate.

“Brittani just came in the room and was ‘Hey – how you doing? I guess I’m here to work with you today. Let’s go. What are we doing?’” Jernigan laughed. “Brittani loves me no matter what, no matter who I am, no matter what’s wrong with me, no matter the stress I’m under. Brittani loves me and in turn I love her.”

An unidentified admirer pets Brittani at the guide dog's retirement ceremony February 2015.

An unidentified admirer pets Brittani, age 10, at the guide dog’s retirement ceremony February 2015.

They had quite a life together making a total of 66 cross-country journeys for speaking engagements and conferences as well as earning a college degree at University of South Florida St. Petersburg.

“College is stressful. With all those kids walking around and I can’t see and I’m trying to find my classes,” Jernigan said. “Brittani was right there with me every step of the way.”

Zak, a 2-year-old yellow Labrador, is one of the newest Paws for Patriots graduates. (June 2015)

Zak, a 2-year-old yellow Labrador, is one of the newest Paws for Patriots graduates. (June 2015)

Brittani helped Jernigan navigate to classes as well as lessen his anxiety. But their relationship changed in February when Jernigan and others noticed his 10-year-old guide dog was losing her focus.

“Brittani has worked hard. She’s earned her retirement,” Jernigan said. “She’s still very healthy, very active at this point she’s at the point where it’s time for her to retire.”

Brittani now lives one of Jernigan’s best friends. The hardest thing, he said, was going 90 days with no contact so Brittani could bond with her new family.

“It’s all part of the cycle. Brittany is not leaving my life,” Jernigan said. “I’m still going to continue to see Brittany. She’s just not going to be living with me anymore.”

Wounded Marine Evin Bodle with Zak just before their graduation ceremony at the Palma Ceia Country Club, Tampa, June 4, 2015.

Wounded Marine Evin Bodle with Zak just before their graduation ceremony at the Palma Ceia Country Club, Tampa, June 4, 2015.

The two were reunited (after the required period of separation) at this week’s Southeastern Guide Dogs ceremony kicking off the MacDill Puppy Raisers group. Volunteers from the military community are helping to socialize and raise dogs for the Paws for Patriots program which gives free guide and service dogs to wounded veterans.

Jernigan is a co-founder of Paws for Patriots and now works as a donor relations manager with Southeastern Guide Dogs.

So far, Paws for Patriots has paired more than 100 guide and service dogs with wounded veterans. One of the most recent pairings: 2-year-old Zak and his wounded Marine, Lance Corporal Evin Bodle.

“I knew Zak was for me the first time I took him out and he kept up with my pace. It was amazing,” Bodle said just before their graduation ceremony earlier this month at the Palma Ceia Country Club in Tampa.

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Wounded Marine Michael Jernigan and Brittani during their 8 years together. Photo courtesy of Paws for Patriots, Southeaster Guide Dogs.


A Veteran Adapts Thanks to a Service Dog, VA Social Rehab

Frances "Frankie" Torres volunteering for the community renovation project earlier this month at Tampa's K9s for Veterans.

If people get a little too close, Frankie Torres becomes anxious when he’s out in public. That’s when Hunter steps in to help shield Torres. Hunter is the Army veteran’s service dog.

I met Torres at Tampa’s K9s for Veterans. That’s not where he got his service dog. Instead, Torres was there volunteering with the Mission Continues and Home Depot community project to renovate the service dog facility earlier this month.

Torres used the volunteer project as a step on his way back from injuries. He’s part of the James A. Haley VA social rehab program. Many wounded veterans, like Torres, are uneasy when put in a civilian, social setting. It can feel foreign and destabilizing especially to a soldier dealing with post traumatic stress and brain injuries Torres said.

“I had a brain injury which I had to recover (from). I was in a wheelchair for a long, long time,” Torres said. “Thanks to the VA Hospital here in Tampa, they helped me cope with my injuries and learn how to deal with them with minimum medication.”

Frankie Torres proudly served on active duty for more than 18 years.

Proudly wearing an 82nd Airborne cap, Torres talks about his 18 and a half years of active duty serving in Panama, Columbia, Kosovo, Africa, Afghanistan and Iraq. Now, it’s an accomplishment to attend a local community event.

Torres credited his progress to his will to live, “It’s a lot of depression that sets in when you’re active duty and then you come out of it. And you can’t do what you could do before, but through the social rehab program I learned to deal with my inner self and try to kind of put the injuries aside.”

“I took that label that was supposed to be a label ‘oh, I’m an injured vet, I suffer from depression and anxiety’ to – I could go out there and do other things and enjoy life.”

Working on rehabilitating the buildings and kennels at K9s for Vets was a good fit because it reminded Torres of his service dog, Hunter.

Renovations included new fencing around the K9s for Veterans kennels and dog runs.

“I still suffer from seizures and my dog, he’s trained to, he senses when I’m going to have a seizure,” Torres said. “Also when he senses that I’m anxious, my heart rate goes up, he stands in front of me so if anyone comes too close – he kind of like pushes them away – to give me that space to be able to relax.”

Torres said some people view having a service dog as a crutch, but he disagrees.

“I could tell my dog secrets and talk to him and tell him how I’m feeling and I know he’s not going to go out there and blabber it out to people,” Torres said. And thanks to his service dog and the James A. Haley VA social rehab program – Frankie Torres – is reentering the civilian world a step at a time.

Iraq Veteran Credits Service Dog for Saving Him from Suicide

Former Army Capt. Luis Carlos Montalvan and his service dog, Tuesday.

During a private reception in Roseville, California Friday night, retired U.S. Army Captain Luis Carlos Montalvan relayed a startling statistic: Every day in this country, 18 veterans commit suicide.

“We are going through a war in this country and it’s not in Iraq or Afghanistan,” Montalvan said, in a news release about the event. “I don’t know what’s wrong with our generals, our leaders, our citizens, but that statistic alone should be on the front pages of every newspaper.”

This figure comes from the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs, which reports that an average of 950 suicide attempts occurred monthly in 2010 by veterans receiving treatment from the department.

Montalvan authored the book, “Until Tuesday,” about how his service dog, Tuesday, brought him back from the brink of suicide.

The New York Times bestselling author and New York City resident struggled with post traumatic stress disorder and a traumatic brain injury from his service in Iraq. Far more soldiers come home with these “invisible wounds from war” than with amputated limbs, he said.

The United States has deployed 2.2 million soldiers since the war in Iraq began in 2003, he said.

You can read Sena Christian’s full story in the Roseville online newspaper HERE.

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