The health affects of pet ownership have long been known, from reduced blood pressure to higher survival rate after serious illnesses. Dogs have been used in wars before, but a new emphasis in the utilization of dogs by the Department of Defense has become apparent, and it’s about time. Dogs will soon be providing therapy to soldiers in Iraq.
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.
There are other uses being made with dogs for U.S. warriors. “Starting in February, Stevi, a 17-month-old golden Labrador retriever, will be by Bill Campbell’s side at all times as his specially trained assistant, protector and companion. Campbell, 46, lives with traumatic brain injuries and post-traumatic stress disorder. He will be the first service member diagnosed with PTSD to receive a dog under a new program started by Puppies Behind Bars, a New York-based nonprofit that trains inmates to raise service dogs.”
There are still further uses for dogs, helping not warriors, but bringing closure to the families of fallen warriors.
Lex attended the funeral of his best friend in March, playing with the 20-year-old Marine’s younger brother away from the crowd. He was beside Cpl. Dustin Lee when Lee was killed in a mortar attack in Falluja.
Wounded himself, Lex didn’t want to leave Lee’s side after the attack — fellow Marines had to pull him away from the young man’s body so medics could do their work.
Although some shrapnel remains in his body, Lex recovered from his wounds and returned to duty at the Marines’ Logistics Base in Albany, Georgia, to await a new assignment.
On Friday, Lex gets that new assignment — retirement to Lee’s family home in Quitman, Mississippi, where the 8-year-old bomb-sniffing German Shepherd will live out the rest of his life.
Jerome Lee, the young Marine’s father, lobbied the Marines hard for months to adopt the dog. Marine officials initially told Lee that it would be no problem to get the dog. But persuading the service to give up Lex before the dog’s mandatory retirement at age 10 proved to be a challenge. Watch Dustin’s father describe how the family struggled to adopt their son’s dog »
“Since Dustin’s death we’ve been trying to get his dog, Lex, from the Marine Corps, and needless to say we’ve had some difficulty there,” said Lee, a Mississippi Highway Patrol officer. “This thing went from colonels to generals all the way up to the commandant of the Marine Corps, and it almost went to the secretary of defense.”
One of the issues was making sure the dog was not “overly aggressive.” His behavior with the Lee youngsters — Lex played tug-o-war with 13-year-old Camryn at Dustin’s funeral — seemed to assure that wouldn’t be a problem. Marine officials also said the request had to go through the Air Force, which is the approving authority for all military dogs.
Finally, on December 13, the Marines agreed to let Lex live with Lee’s family. It was the first time the Marines have released a dog before its retirement to a former handler’s family.
“Lex has had two tours in Iraq,” said Jerome Lee. “He’s been through a lot, and we just want to get Lex home to our family, and let him have a happy life.”
Well before joining the Marines, Dustin Lee was known by all for his devotion to his country. A member of Quitman High School’s cross-country track team, Lee and three teammates participated in the Americans United: Flag Across America Run after the September 11, 2001, terror attacks on New York and Washington.
So it was no surprise when the young man joined the Marines out of high school in 2004, nor was it a surprise when he went to Albany to train military police dogs, inspired by his mother’s work with the county’s search and rescue team dogs when he was a boy.
Dustin, an animal lover who also rode horses, played hide and seek with his mother’s canine companion as a child, Jerome Lee said.
“He would let the dog get a sniff of his clothing and then go hide to see if the dog could find him,” the elder Lee said.
At the logistics base in Albany, Lee said, Dustin “worked with all the dogs and became the kennel master.”
Dustin and Lex had been stationed in Falluja for nearly five months before the fatal attack. When the Marine’s body was returned to Quitman in late March, hundreds lined the streets waving American flags to say a tearful goodbye. And Lex was there.
In Albany on Thursday, current kennel master Mike Reynolds led Lex through his paces for the last time in his military career. Now it’s time for the old pro to learn some new civilian tricks. In a ceremony on Friday, Lex will join the family of his best friend.
Jerome Lee hopes his other two children will feel closer to their missing older brother.
“There’s always going to be that missing link with Dusty gone,” he said. “But part of Dusty is here with Lex.”Lex attended the funeral of his best friend in March, playing with the 20-year-old Marine’s younger brother away from the crowd. He was beside Cpl. Dustin Lee when Lee was killed in a mortar attack in Falluja.
See also Family Adopts Slain Son’s Military Dog, and U.S. Troops in Iraq to Get Some Doggie Love. With no apologies to cat lovers, “man’s best friend” is proving itself once again as good for the soul.