The staff at the MCAS Miramar Veterinary Treatment Facility are no strangers to overcoming adversity and finding creative solutions to keep the mission going.
For the last three years the team has conquered one operational hurdle after another, such as juggling staffing shortages and COVID-19 operation restrictions, in order to continue to care for their furry patients.
“The number one mission for VTFs like Miramar is to provide veterinary medical care to government-owned animals, such as military working dogs,” explained Sgt. Ashley Santacroce, former noncommissioned officer in charge of Miramar VTF and an animal care specialist. “So it was really important that we kept the mission going, no matter what challenges we faced.”
In addition to MWDs, VTFs often provide care to pets owned by military members, retirees and dependents.
“This secondary service, to provide care to privately-owned animals, benefits the clinic since it sharpens the veterinarians’ and staff’s medical skills to sustain our main mission, caring for MWDs,” Santacroce continued.
While VTFs benefit local military communities by providing services to pet owners, they also mean more patients for staff members to see and provide services.
“We take care of 46 military working dogs, 69 non-DoD government-owned animals, and roughly 7,000 privately-owned animals,” explained Dr. (Capt.) Caitlin Sullivan, a veterinarian who is the San Diego Branch Chief.
With more than 7,100 patients to care for, the team at Miramar has always had a busy work load. So when Santacroce joined the team in 2017, she was eager to tackle the challenge as the new VTF NCOIC.
“I wasn’t an NCOIC at my previous duty station, so when I got here I didn’t really know what to expect, but I was ready to learn the job and run with it,” said Santacroce.
“So when I first got to Miramar, I leaned on the leadership that was there and they really guided me into the position,” she said. “I was fortunate enough to have three specialists, so they focused on the military working dog mission while I learned how to run the clinic, since our lead GS veterinarian was also a reservist who was getting ready to deploy.”
Little did Santacroce know that her work would be cut out for her. While her team was initially fully staffed with Soldiers and nonappropriated fund employees, the team dwindled over the next two years due to deployments, turnover, and permanent change of station rotations.
“My last Soldier ended up reclassing at the end of 2019,” explained Santacroce. “So by the end of the year, I was the last military member in the clinic.
“While I still had a few NAF employees and one NAF veterinarian working at the clinic,” she said, “I had assumed the entire mission that all of the military personnel were in charge of since our GS veterinarian never returned and our clinic didn’t have a dedicated OIC at the time.”
For Santacroce, that meant juggling the workload for four MWD kennels and five government owned facilities that included animals for the Department of Homeland Security.
“I had to coordinate care for all of the animals, such as scheduling and managing appointments and vaccines for the dogs, while making sure treatments were done on time to keep them mission ready,” Santacroce said.
In addition to taking care of the MWD mission, Santacroce also had to ensure that the NAF staff and clinic were following all operational and administrative requirements.
“The administrative aspects were a lot,” said Santacroce. “I supervised five or six NAF employees, so I did their time cards, made their schedules, and coordinated with HR if we needed any personnel actions. On the military side of the admin tasks I would manage the taskers and the budget.”
To keep up with the heavy workload of duties and responsibilities, Santacroce partnered with leadership from Public Health Activity-San Diego to find creative solutions to help ease the burden of the manning shortfall at the clinic.
One ways that they worked together to ease the burden of the MWD mission was to combine forces with the Camp Pendleton VTF.
“We coordinated with Camp Pendleton since they had a couple of military veterinarians there,” explained Santacroce. “So we set up a schedule for them basically to come down once a week and assist with military working dog appointments and if we really needed to have the dogs seen then we would send them to Camp Pendleton.”
While the extra help from the military veterinarians was a welcome relief, the daily administrative tasks and routine care, such as vaccinations, still was too much for one Soldier to juggle.
To help solve this issue, the PHA-SD leadership team reached out to veterinary food inspection Soldiers within the footprint to volunteer to help with the animal care specialist mission.
“We needed the help but we couldn’t force them to come to the clinic, because the food inspectors had their own mission,” continued Santacroce. “Spc. [Jessica] Bonner volunteered to come to the clinic and that was a huge relief since she was able to help right away with the receptionist role and scheduling appointments and answering questions.”
As a traditionally-trained veterinary food inspector Bonner only knew limited amounts of the animal care specialist mission, but was excited to help in any way she could after having a small opportunity to learn more about vaccinating government-owned animals.
“I had the opportunity to help for a week at the kennels with vaccinations,” said Bonner. “Afterwards, Sgt. 1st Class Kristen Stall, from PHA-SD, asked me how I liked it and if I would be interested in helping out at the Miramar VTF.
“I thought it would be awesome,” she added.
Bonner immediately took over as the Miramar VTF receptionist and clerk, and with the help and oversight of the Miramar staff and Santacroce, began assisting during patient visits.
“Once I got the basics of the receptionist role, that’s when they started walking me through how to properly handle a dog, whether it was a personally-owned animal or a military working dog,” explained Bonner. “They showed me how they would specifically hold and vaccinate an animal, and then when it was my turn to do it, they were there every single step of the way to make sure that I wasn’t doing anything to injure myself, the pet, or the MWD.”
When the Miramar VTF began picking up steam and helping more patients, the team was about to undergo another operational challenge – COVID-19 and the global pandemic.
“In the beginning, it was really challenging since we had to stop seeing privately-owned animals and focus strictly on military working dogs since our NAF staff couldn’t come into work,” explained Santacroce. “So, I would have to call clients and spend a lot of time canceling or moving appointments.”
To overcome this hurdle Santacroce worked with Dr. (Capt.) Colleen Mans, who was the acting branch officer in charge at the time and in charge of both the food inspection mission and the veterinary mission.
“We developed a way forward that would allow us to see patients again and get our NAF employees back to work,” said Santacroce. “We were going to start out slow and have more time for each appointment. We had masks and wipes to wipe down the pets if clients were concerned about anything being on the pets when we touched them, and we stocked piled gloves since there was a shortage.”
Together, Mans and Santacroce were able to bring back Bonner and the rest of the NAF staff as the privately-owned animal mission slowly returned.
“As things began to pick up we developed a curbside service,” explained Santacroce.
This service allowed pet owners to stay safely in their vehicles while calling to check in with the clinic, reducing the potential spread of COVID-19.
“We would come out to their vehicles and get the history of the pet, and then we would bring the pet inside for its appointment,” Santacroce reminisced. “Most clients were pretty happy about that.”
The success of these strategies showed. Last summer, the clinic saw profits that were unmatched by any other clinic in the PHA-SD footprint.
“Despite being undermanned and having to overcome the challenges of COVID-19, we had one of our most profitable months ever this last summer,” Santacroce said. “After paying the staff and budgeting our operational costs, we made a profit of $17,000, which is unusual since our clinic normally only has a profit of a couple of thousand each month.”
Bonner said she felt very proud of the team’s accomplishment.
“We had to make it work. We had to learn how to adapt to the challenges and the needs of the clients,” she said. “For me, I feel especially proud, because that meant stepping outside of my comfort zone to learn a different MOS in order to help out my fellow Soldiers to get the mission done.”
Santacroce, Bonner and Mans have left a lasting impact on the Miramar VTF and the clinic’s legacy, even though they’ve all moved on to other assignments. Their work truly embodied the PHC-P credo of “100/0!” which means 100 percent accountability and responsibility and zero excuses for not giving your best every day.
To learn more about the Miramar VTF or to schedule an appointment, visit their website at: https://phcp.health.mil/Commands/Public-Health-Activity-San-Diego/Marine-Corps-Air-Station-Miramar/