Earlier this year, the COVID-19 pandemic stopped all adaptive reconditioning in-person groups and community outings for Soldiers assigned to the Fort Belvoir Soldier Recovery Unit in Virginia. But where there’s a will to volunteer, there’s a way.
During this trying time, a pet care facility offered convenient and safe volunteer opportunities that made a real difference for Soldiers recovering from wounds, illnesses or injuries.
As winter gave way to spring, in-person groups and outings resumed to a certain extent, but things haven’t quite returned to how they once were. In the meantime, Soldiers can be found cleaning kennels, painting walls and feeding animals at a pet care facility at Fort Belvoir. In addition to helping with cat and dog care, some are lending a hand with dog training and grooming.
One of the Soldiers is Capt. Joseph Puccio, who has always loved animals and owned four dogs during his childhood. Prior to serving in the Army, Puccio worked in the aquatics section of a pet store.
“I consider myself a dog dad to my girlfriend’s Dalmatian, and I earned a degree in Marine Biology,” he said. “So life other than humans has always been a part of my life.”
His experience consisted of an orientation to the facility followed by greeting some of the dogs. He then cleaned the kennel floor and provided a fresh area where the dogs could rest.
“It was certainly a great experience, getting to do something that I was passionate about,” he said.
Like Puccio, Spc. Andrea Varidakis-Broyles has a background with animals. Her civilian job is in veterinary medicine, so she is used to being around them.
“[Volunteering] helps me feel more in my own environment or norm,” Varidakis-Broyles said.
She answers phones, helps with training, cleans the cages and floors and assists with a technical project. When able, she bonds with the pets.
She said that the program has numerous benefits, including creating relationships and teambuilding with fellow Soldiers and those who work at the facility, and the satisfaction of helping the employees and the local community. Additional benefits are dedicating time to being around animals to help release stress and having fun playing with them.
She called it a distraction from the overall stress of being injured and working toward recovery.
Spc. Angel Africa also devoted time to helping at the facility. For her, having a bond with the animals was beneficial even though she normally worked with different ones each time she volunteered.
“Being around animals all my life, it just felt like a little bit of home in a place away from home,” Africa said.
She described having a “healing of the mind” when doing things like holding smaller puppies or playing with larger and older pets. The animals seem to have a sense of ease around her as well, she said.
Staff Sgt. Thomas Reilly loves volunteering at the facility.
“It’s great to get out of our rooms, into a new environment and I feel working with dogs and cats helps tremendously with mental health,” Reilly said.
He was a K-9 handler with the sheriff’s office where he is employed and some of that experience enables him to help a bit with training. One of the ways that they assist is by being “strangers” for the dogs to greet, he explained.
“I love working with the animals,” he said. “Helping to train them, even bathing them, although that could be a challenge at times,” he said.
Volunteering may mean doing unfamiliar things and that could be frightening for some, but Reilly said it can also be a learning experience.
“Don’t be afraid to go outside your comfort zone and try something new; it can really help your mental state and even teach you a skill you can use after you transition from the Army,” he said.