Opening Doors to Mental Health
“I didn’t know what to expect with Boe,” Najera says. “It was my first deployment, and I had no clue how I’d use the dog.” As part of COSC’s prevention team, Najera facilitated outreach and classes in areas such as coping skills and suicide prevention. Boe, constantly at Najera’s side, made her purpose clear in no time.
“There’s still a mental-health stigma,” Najera says. “When you say, ‘Hi, I’m from Stress Control,’ people tend to run the other way. But I found that having a dog opened up doors. Instead of having to [make the] approach, people approached me.” She says it also gave soldiers something neutral to talk about, especially if they had pets at home. Before they knew it, they would be talking about personal aspects of their lives and even — on occasion — their feelings.
Najera found that she and Boe were always working. Not only were they available to men and women dealing with combat trauma or news of tragedy back home, but soldiers would also approach the pair at the dining facility or while they were running on the track (part of the old Iraqi Air Force base where they were staying). Najera created a program for a couple of overweight soldiers to run with Boe, and the dog even participated in a 5K on the base. The four-legged competitor still managed to boost morale, even after beating a few human racers. On Boe’s fourth birthday, the Army Dixie band played, and the dining facility staff made a cake and a piñata. “It was a party for her, but it was really for our community,” Najera says. “It just showed how much people really enjoyed having a dog.”
Boe wasn’t immune to the high-stress environment. After all, she was charged with comforting many of the 16,000 people living on a base that was active 24 hours a day. “I think the dogs experience compassion fatigue too,” Najera says. “When soldiers tell us what they’re going through, it becomes stressful for us, because we’re absorbing the stresses. I think it was the same for the dogs.” Eventually, a forced nap was scheduled into Boe’s day.
In Mosul, at Forward Operating Base Marez, Budge lived at a smaller facility but still had his work cut out for him: consoling troops at a trailer-based clinic and going for walkabouts to visit units. The base was mortared multiple time a day, and though Budge raised his ears at the sound, he didn’t panic. He even had a chance to save a life, donating blood to a military police dog who was injured along with his handler in a shooting.
Like Boe, Budge was a superstar and champion icebreaker, garnering invitations (to unit social gatherings, for instance) that a mental-health provider might never get otherwise. “We couldn’t go anywhere without someone calling his name,” recalls his handler, Staff Sgt. Syreeta Reid, an occupational therapy assistant. “They didn’t remember my name, but they always knew I was the one with Budge.” Sometimes Reid set up play dates between Budge and the soldiers: Frisbee or fetch on a field where an Iraqi soccer team once played.
In both countries, the weather is unforgiving and the physical conditions are challenging, and the dogs — just like other soldiers — are deployed with proper gear. They have booties to protect their paws from the hot ground and Doggles to protect their eyes from blowing sand. They have cooling jackets for daytime and, in Afghanistan, warm vests for night. Reid says she inspected Budge’s paws daily to make sure they weren’t cracked, and used cream to keep them hydrated. The mercury rose to 135 degrees some days, and those were indoor days for Budge.
On days with multiple soldier visits, Budge would inevitably receive too many treats. Reid says one of the hardest things was dispelling the myth that food equals love. The fact was, Budge was getting a little, well, pudgy. Reid pled with his fans to limit the treats, but eventually resorted to serving him smaller meals to control his weight.
Boe and Budge were deployed for 18 months, returning to the U.S. in April 2009. Jones says that people remember working dogs not returning from Vietnam, but “these dogs travel on orders,” he says, “so they all come home.” Upon their return, they go to VetDogs for evaluation and retraining for their next army assignment. Most of the former COSC dogs have been redeployed to occupational or physical therapy clinics at U.S. bases.