Thursday, December 13, 2007
Dogs to provide therapy to soldiers in Iraq
Here is Boe, one of the therapy dogs going to Iraq.
BY JENNIFER BARRIOS | firstname.lastname@example.org
December 13, 2007
Sgts. First Class Budge and Boe are headed to Iraq.
Budge and Boe don't have last names: They're dogs. But the pups are now officially enlisted as the Army's first therapy dogs for soldiers in combat.
The two black Labrador retrievers will be stationed with the Army's combat stress units in Tikrit and Mosul. Their role? To help soldiers deal with the stress of fighting overseas.
On Sunday, two (human) sergeants from the 85th Medical Detachment flew to Long Island to meet the two dogs at the Guide Dog Foundation for the Blind in Smithtown, which trained Budge and Boe.
"Our hope is that it brings some normalcy to the soldiers," said Sgt. Mike Calaway, an occupational therapist based in Tikrit, who will handle Boe. "The human-animal bond will help relax them."
And the dogs won't just be playmates for the troops, said Sgt. Jack Greene, another occupational therapist who will take Budge back with him to Mosul.
"The major thing is, they are going to help us knock down the stigma around mental health," he said.
But before heading off to Iraq, the dogs needed to get used to sights and sounds similar to those they will encounter in Iraq.
This week, the soldiers, the dogs and foundation officials visited the shooting range at Brookhaven National Laboratory, where the dogs were exposed to the sounds of submachine guns and handguns.
The dogs went to Long Island MacArthur Airport, standing by as Suffolk County police hovered in a helicopter, the wind whipping at the dogs' fur.
And the dogs braved perhaps one of the toughest tests of all: a jaunt through Smithhaven Mall during holiday season, designed to test their reaction to the chaos of crowds.
The dogs have been in training for months, and each has learned simple tricks as well as how to respond to voice commands such as sit, stay and play.
Now Budge and Boe must bond with Calaway and Greene, their handlers until the spring, when the men are scheduled to return from Iraq.
Then, Maj. Arthur Yeager, an occupational therapist based at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, takes over. Yeager, who is to deploy to Iraq next year, said therapy dogs are used at Walter Reed to help soldiers deal with treatment and recovery. He said he expects it to work on the battlefield as well.
"This is very touchy-feely, no doubt about it, but this works," Yeager said. "I know it works. I've seen it work. These dogs are stress sponges."
Soldiers in Iraq visit the combat stress unit when they become overwhelmed with the rigors of battle or by problems their families face at home.
But not every soldier welcomes the idea of going to the unit. Some have difficulty asking for help with stress, Yeager said. That's where Budge and Boe come in.
"To have a dog come up and nudge your hand -- I have yet to see even the hardest soldier refuse that," Yeager said.
The sergeants and dogs plan to leave Long Island on Saturday for Fort Hood, Texas, where the 85th Medical Detachment is stationed. There, Budge and Boe will be examined by a veterinarian for medical issues before deploying to Iraq.
Boe and Budge also will be given the new rank of sergeant first class. No one has to salute them, though. The rank is set higher than that of their human handlers to prevent possible abuse of the dogs, because the Army looks severely at any service member who abuses a higher-up.
Mike Sergeant, chief training officer with the foundation and a Vietnam-era veteran, said the Army's program is a good step toward meeting the mental health needs of its soldiers.
"Dogs are not going to be the sole answer, but they certainly will be an icebreaker," he said.
- It looks like the troops overseas will be getting a couple of therapy dogs. Awesome.