WASHINGTON – Even though the warfighter is at the forefront of most minds when thinking of the Army, not every career path is in the realm of combat arms.
Support, often called force multipliers, comes in many forms across the ranks. From culinary specialist to religious affairs specialist, each job supports the overall organization of the Army.
One of those support staff the Army employs as a force multiplier is the animal care specialist and military working dogs.
“I became an animal care specialist because I was actually wanting to become a veterinarian,” said Staff Sgt. Monique Phillips, noncommissioned officer in charge of the Fort Belvoir, Virginia, Veterinary Center. “I wasn't, basically, mature enough to go through college and the traditional route. So, I joined the Army to get experience. I was a veterinary technician or a veterinary assistant in high school. And then I came into the Army to be an animal care specialist.”
Today, Phillips manages the veterinarian center as well as her Soldiers. Her Soldiers, who are also animal care specialists, perform medical care on government-owned animals and personal pets of military families.
“My path completely changed,” she said. “I got really lucky in my first two assignments. They were pretty high [operational] tempos, but it threw me into every aspect of our job as a vet tech, and I fell in love with veterinary medicine. Between veterinary medicine and the military working dog mission, that just became my passion in my life.”
For Spc. Heidi Edwards, who is also an animal care specialist, animal care is also her passion. Before the Army, she worked at an animal shelter as a veterinary assistant. So, when she was looking for opportunities to perform her passion elsewhere, she found the Army.
“I did my full AIT [Advanced Individual Training] course and learned the military style, which is a little bit different than shelter work,” Edwards said, who has been in for 2 years. “I joined, and I love it because I love working with military working dogs.”
The 11 weeks of AIT every animal care specialist goes through teaches the Soldiers medical care for animals the Army uses for a multitude of missions. One of the main animals the Army has within its ranks is the military working dog.
“The working dog medicine is what drew me in,” Phillips, who has been in the Army for 11 years, said. “That unique population of dogs does such a different job than the average pet. The medicine that they need, the gears must be shifted in how you treat those dogs and how you take care of them. The intent is to always bring the dog back to being operational, so you do every measure possible to bring them back to that.”
Military working dogs perform several functions for the Army and military. The military working dog plays an important role in the Army by assisting Soldiers in law enforcement, explosive detection and other front-line professions. Keeping them healthy is an important task to ensure mission capability.
Keeping working dogs healthy and mission capable is no easy task, and, often times, the first line of medical care for the dog is not the animal care specialist but rather the medical staff around at the time. To that end, Phillips started a two-day course for medical personnel in her area of responsibility to teach them about first-line medical care for dogs.
“The canine tactical combat casualty care training takes the guidelines from the joint trauma system, and the committee for canine tactical combat casualty care, and it applies those guidelines and to a hands on and didactic portion of the training,” Phillips said. “When 68T, animal care specialist[s], deploy, they don’t go on missions with the dogs. What we have found over the years is there has to be someone at point of entry care to provide those life-saving measures. And nine times out of ten, that is a medic or a [dog] handler.”
Phillips’ unit, Public Health Activity, Fort Belvoir, covers 13 states. This two-day K9TCCC training has only been held at Fort Belvoir and at Fort Meade. The training is also available to all branches’ medical personnel as well as some DoD agencies. Even though the dog handler would normally be the first line of medical aid to a working dog, sometimes that can’t happen, and medical professionals will have to step in.
“Sometimes the handler is hurt too, and then the handler can’t give aid to the dog,” she said. “What we found was, we needed force multipliers for our jobs to help provide better care for the dogs.”
Just like humans, the faster dogs can receive medical care in the case of an emergency, the more likely it is for them to survive, even if treatment for a dog is just a little bit different.
“Humans can communicate to you what's wrong, dogs can’t,” Phillips said. “Their reflex when something's wrong is to bite you. And it's nothing personal. It's just they hurt, and they're scared and so that's their defense mechanism. Where a human, unless they're passed out, for the most part, even if they're yelling and in pain, they can tell you why they're in pain. Dogs can’t.”
Phillips hopes that this training will provide medical personnel of every branch the baseline skills of providing medical care to military working dogs and break down some of the barriers of people getting scared of the working dog.
“They just know them as these biting dogs who bite bad guys, and so there is some fear there,” she said. But helping people become more comfortable with their baseline skills and teaching them the most important life-saving skills is a measure of success that will help overcome some of those fears.
Edwards, who normally works for the New London Veterinary Treatment Facility, took what she learned from the canine tactical combat casualty care and provided the training in her area.
“This is very intense training. As a civilian, I never learned something like this,” she said. “[People taking the training] are going to step away from here learning a lot more and feeling a lot more confident. Now that they have opportunity to save not only a human’s life, now a dog’s life too.”