From treating dogs to transporting tigers: A military veterinarian's duty

Life of military veterinarian is diverse

November 16, 2010 (published)
By Pamela Martineau

Civilians who watch the nightly news might expect military veterinarians serving in Iraq and Afghanistan to spend the bulk of their time treating working dogs catastrophically injured by roadside bombs or shootings.

Not so, says U.S. Army Col. Kelly Mann, DVM, director of the Department of Defense Military Working Dog Veterinary Service. The majority of veterinary care given to dogs working in Iraq and Afghanistan is mundane, Mann says.

“We see far less catastrophic injuries of working dogs than you would imagine," Mann says. “The vast majority of the things we (handle) downrange are bruises, lacerations and deep ear cleaning.”

Military dogs in Iraq or Afghanistan support checkpoint operations, accompany infantry soldiers in sweeps for mines or improvised explosive devices and go out on patrol with soldiers. It’s not that the dogs never suffer severe injuries, Mann says; it just doesn’t happen as frequently as civilians might imagine.

“They are basically exposed to the same things soldiers are exposed to,” he says.

Roughly 3,000 military canines work around the globe — as explosives-detection dogs, patrol dogs, guard dogs and drug-sniffing dogs — in all branches of the services. Their medical care is in the hands of the U.S. Army active duty and reserve Veterinary Corps, composed of roughly 780 veterinarians, veterinary warrant officers and animal-care specialists — workers similar to veterinary technicians.

Not well-known to civilians, the Veterinary Corps has a broad purview that includes:

  • Training dog handlers in first-response care.
  • Providing medical attention for military contractors’ working dogs, which serve the same mission as their government-owned counterparts.
  • Monitoring soldiers’ food-supply safety abroad. Members of the corps check shipments of food and inspect food-processing plants, slaughterhouses and farms from which the military procures provisions to help guard against food-borne disease.
  • Treating animals in disaster zones such as the World Trade Center after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and in New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina.
  • Looking after horses used in military ceremonies.
  • Providing health care to pets of military personnel and retirees.

“We’re really very diverse,” says Lt. Col Madonna Higgins, DVM, assistant to the chief, U.S. Army Veterinary Corps. “There is such a variety to my job that there is little chance for burnout.”

U.S. Army Maj. Nicole Chevalier, DVM, served in Iraq in 2008 and 2009 as deputy commander of the 64th Medical Detachment. The veterinarians, warrant officers and technicians in her unit were spread out in 17 locations throughout the country.

Chevalier’s unit provided veterinary support to the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines and Coalition forces. Like other units in the Veterinary Corps, the veterinarians vaccinated working dogs and cared for them when they were ill or injured.

Monitoring the health of military dogs provides clues to authorities about conditions that might impact troops’ health, as well. “Say an animal were in an area and it picked up an infectious disease,” says Higgins. “That would alert us there may be a problem.”

For example, military veterinarians were able to track the spread of leishmaniasis — a parasitic disease transmitted by the bite of the sand fly — by testing military dogs for the condition. When they saw dogs infected by the parasite, they notified military physicians to watch for human cases.

Another disease they’re on alert for is rabies. “Rabies is a real problem in Iraq,” says Chevalier, noting that during the first 10 months of her deployment, her unit logged 66 animal-bite cases.

Chevalier said she and her staff launched a public-awareness campaign for Iraqi civilians about the risk of contracting rabies from stray animals. They were careful to word the pamphlets so as not to make people fearful of dogs and other animals, yet persuade them to exercise caution.

“They’ve never dealt with dogs much before,” Chevalier says. “People don’t grow up with dogs as pets in Iraq.”

Sometimes military veterinarians provide care to local animals in countries where they are deployed. In Iraq, military veterinarians helped to rebuild the Baghdad Zoo in a mission dubbed “Operation Flying Tiger.” Stabilizing the zoo and re-opening it was viewed as a way to help normalize life for civilians. Part of the job for the veterinarians involved escorting two Bengal tiger cubs, valued at $200,000, to Baghdad from the North Carolina Conservation Center, which donated the rare animals.

Chevalier and her team also consulted for the Baghdad Police College’s Canine Directorate, helping the police improve care of their explosives-detection dogs. The American veterinarians worked with Iraqi veterinarians, who Chevalier says have skills equivalent to those of veterinary technicians in the United States.

“They wanted to learn, but they didn’t have the expertise or resources to train themselves,” she says.

One case Chevalier remembers vividly from her time in Iraq is that of a military working dog that came down with a Babesia infection. The dog became increasingly ill and was started on IVs at a clinic for soldiers.

“He just continued to go downhill so we called in a helicopter and medevaced him to a well-equipped veterinary hospital in Balad,” Chevalier recalls.

A CT scan on the dog revealed a mass on his spleen. The dog developed multiple organ dysfunction syndrome and ultimately had to be euthanized.

Although the case ended badly, Chevalier was touched by the high level of care her team was able to give the animal despite the austere conditions. “We were able to give him the appropriate level of care and alleviate his pain and suffering,” she says.

Serving in far-flung locations can pose unique challenges for accessing medical information. U.S. Army Capt. Jeff LaHuis, DVM, who recently returned from a tour of duty in Kuwait serving in the 719th Medical Detachment/Veterinary Services, credits the Veterinary Information Network (VIN), an online community for the profession, with providing easy access to valuable information.
“Books are large and heavy, so it was difficult to carry them,” LaHuis says. “However, an Internet connection was almost always available… This access to VIN greatly enhanced the quality of medicine that we could do downrange. The ability to perform research and stay current with new medical advances was what I appreciated the most.”

(A membership organization supported by subscriptions, VIN provides free access to veterinarians and veterinary technicians in combat zones. Those serving domestically or in non-combat zones abroad are granted access for a reduced rate.)

When a working dog is injured in the line of duty in Iraq or Afghanistan, military veterinarians follow the same medical protocol as for injured soldiers: the dog is treated on-site by a specially trained first responder, usually the dog’s handler; then the dog is transported to an in-field veterinary clinic. If the injuries can’t be adequately treated at the clinic, the dog is medevaced to a larger veterinary hospital, usually out of country.

The hub for the treatment of military working dogs is the Holland Military Working Dog Hospital at Lackland Air Force Base in Texas. The hospital is named after Lt. Col. Dan Holland, a military veterinarian who was killed by an improvised explosive device in Iraq in 2006.

Col. Mann, a close friend of Holland, serves as director of the hospital. He described it as a fully-staffed, fully-equipped facility designed to treat any illness or injury a dog might suffer serving in or out of the United States. Its veterinarians are board-certified internists, surgeons, radiologists, epidemiologist and other specialists.

“Anywhere in the world that definitive care of a military working dog outstrips the care of a local facility — we can refer them back here,” Mann says. “It’s all dogs all day.”

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