The Best Defense

Guest Dog: Charlie Sherpa runs with some therapy canines in Afghanistan

This is cross-posted from Chief Red Bull's blog, as his invitation.  I am happy to run it, especially because the other day when I was in the airport in Bangor, Maine, I recognized some Red Bull patches, because of his blog. (There also was a Ukrainian cargo plane there, which is ironic, given that the Cold War role of the Bangor airport was as an Air Force base, I'm guessing to launch interceptors to greet waves of inbound Soviet bombers.)  

By "Charlie Sherpa"
Best Defense bureau of Guard and Reserve affairs

Since July 2010, a 3-year-old yellow Labrador Retriever named Sgt. First Class Timmy, along with U.S. Army handler and occupational therapist Capt. Theresa Schillreff, have reached out a helpful paw and hand to service members struggling with deployment stresses, whether those stem from combat experiences or problems at home.

"It's helping people understand that if I have 'X, Y, and Z' going on in my life, how can I cope with that and make sure that I can do my job, meet our mission, and not be sent home," says Schillreff, a member of 254th Medical Detachment, an active-duty U.S. Army combat-stress unit stationed at Miesau Army Depot, Germany. On Bagram Airfield, the unit's Freedom Restoration Center is a 3- to 5-day program that offers a restorative environment to critically stressed-out soldiers. "We really try to fit them up for success."

While soldiers catch up on sleep, nutrition, and physical fitness, the center also offers classes on anger and stress management, resiliency, positive thinking, and leisure and life skills. Staff includes psychiatrists, psychologists, occupational therapists, chaplains, social workers, and nurse practitioners. Service members from all military branches may be referred to the center by a healthcare provider or chaplain. They can also self-refer, although only with approval from a commander.

Timmy and 3-year-old Sgt. First Class Apollo, a black Lab, are the only two military therapy dogs in Afghanistan. The first such dogs deployed to Iraq in 2007, Schillreff says. Timmy and Apollo are part of an ongoing study on the effectiveness of dogs in addressing soldier stress downrange.

Under General Order No. 1, soldiers stationed on Combat Outposts ("COP") or Forward Operating Bases ("FOB") are not allowed to maintain "morale dogs" or mascots. That doesn't always stop soldiers from adopting animals as pets, however, which places those soldiers at risk of disease and injury. "My personal opinion on it is that we seek out affection and comfort, and that's something that dogs can do for us," says Schillreff. "We're trying to use it in a therapeutic way. Having the dogs with the combat-stress teams, you can still have that morale boost, but you have a dog who is well-trained, and who doesn't come with the risks of these wild animals."

Timmy wears either a Universal Camouflage Pattern (U.C.P.) uniform while on duty, or a similarly colored bandana during hot summer months. In addition to long walks and playing fetch, the calm and steadfast canine has made a hobby of collecting the uniform patches of those soldiers with whom he has visited. His collection includes the distinctive emblem of the Iowa Army National Guard's 2nd Brigade Combat Team (B.C.T.), 34th Infantry "Red Bull" Division (2-34th BCT), scheduled to return to the United States later this summer.

Timmy has been trained to be approachable and non-aggressive, Schillreff says. The dog was donated to the U.S. Army by America's Vet Dogs, an affiliate organization to the Guide Dog Foundation for the Blind, Inc., Smithville, New York. According to the organization's website, military therapy dogs placed in combat-stress clinics provide a supportive, non-judgmental presence to service members during interactions with healthcare providers. "The dogs' handlers have reported that soldiers have talked longer, and more meaningfully, to mental health professionals when the dogs were present."

While considered a service dog, Timmy's role as a therapy or emotional support dog differs from that of a "Red Bull" litter of psychiatric service dogs currently being trained by Paws & Effect, a Des Moines, Iowa-based non-profit.

"Timmy fits in to our mission in a lot of different ways," says Schillreff. "For the Freedom Restoration Center, he is here when we do our one-on-one interviews with service members. He is available during leisure time, to play. We sometimes have him in our classes with us, so there can be some interaction there as well. Just petting a dog helps lower your heart rate, which reduces stress. He can provide comfort to people just by laying at their feet ..."

"Our other mission with Timmy is with outreach and prevention. We do what we call 'walkabouts' -- we take the dog for a walk. [...] We just go around and let people pet him and play with him. It's kind of a morale boost -- he provides a comfort of home that people don't otherwise get -- but he also gives us an 'in.' He opens doors."

Timmy's rank is something of a military tradition -- the animal normally outranks the handler. It's unusual for an officer to be lucky enough to be tasked as dog-handler, says Schillreff. Still, Timmy is unlikely to promote to major prior to Schillreff's return to Germany in July. Timmy has one more year on his 2-year deployment to Afghanistan. "I have never actually owned a dog before..." she says. "I think I've had one of the best deployment jobs ever."

As part of his duties, Timmy occasionally attends memorial services, and mission debriefings after convoys have experienced significant injuries. At such times, Timmy serves as an easy-to-recognize, easy-to-approach reminder of available behavioral health resources. "Going out regularly helps us become familiar with units, so that when they do have hard times -- a significant injury or death -- they can call me up," says Schillreff. "Then we go out, and provide comfort and support."

"People stop by all the time to visit him, media included," says Schillreff. "That's the nice thing about him. He doesn't discriminate. He doesn't care who you are or what your rank is. When he puts on his uniform, it says, 'I'm doing my job. I'm here for you.'"

The Best Defense

Blog comment of the other day: Here is how to straighten out the Army's PT

Dunno where he learned it, but this guy Gourley knows how to write. Here is his comment from the discussion of screwy PT in the 82nd Airborne. Meantime, I suspect we need a discussion of whether there is really such a thing as "NCO business" and if so, what it is and isn't.

By Jim Gourley
Best Defense department of physical and mental fitness

Nearly one in every three service members are overweight. That includes some officers and senior NCOs. You think the Army doesn't want to talk about negligent discharges? Let's talk about officers that don't pass tape. The "system" that is meant to hold everyone accountable is rife with favoritism toward officers. Officers simply get away with it, because it's an NCO that usually conducts the PT and weight/tape tests. The pressure to avoid giving an officer a failing grade is intense, and there's a good deal of back-scratching for NCOs that don't pull the tape so snug around the waist. I was recently at a party where several NCOs in a unit remarked about a LTC I know here in Vicenza, who is obviously obese. The dirty secret is that he shows up for the unit PT test (he takes the walking option for the run due to a profile for something) and then ducks out of the tape test. There's a Major in the same unit with a 42-inch waist who would have failed if it wasn't for his buddy the NCO that fudged the numbers.

Anybody want to call me out on that? I'll give you the names.

Here are the solutions to the problem:

STOP doing unit-level PT

START assessing individuals by ability, and train according to ability groups. Cross-load troops within the same Battalion or even the same Brigade. Let the linebackers in the Infantry get to know their comrades in the support battalion. You might get a better understanding of how the team works while you get a better workout.

STOP letting NCOs just run things willy-nilly

START holding officers accountable at every level. Make them develop training plans to bring different ability groups up to speed on their week areas over a 180-day period. Let NCOs carry the plan out, but supervise them.

STOP turning your troops loose to BK or the DFAC to completely undo everything you just accomplished every morning.

START dedicating one day of PT each week to execute light stretching or a short run, then bring everyone together for an educational briefing on nutrition, training principles, mental health, or impacts of sleep deprivation. There's lots to talk about, and it is absolutely physical training.

STOP abandoning every "broke dick" and "fat boy."

START holding leadership accountable for injured and sub-standard soldier performances. Taking your couch potatoes and linebackers for a marathon with the track team is no less an unsafe act than executing a live-fire range without first walking it with the unit. Make your leaders actually think about how to keep their people healthy. Stomp out the stigmas associated with these problems and acknowledge leadership's culpability in them.

STOP accepting what's being served to your troops at mealtime.

START engaging people and find out what you can do to improve things. If General Hertling could get the candy bars replaced by organic fruit snacks at the training bases and General McChrystal could kick BK out of Afghanistan, you can make an impact in your own area.

STOP the punishment-oriented approach.

START giving troops incentives for excellence in physical performance. And I'm not talking about some stupid badge that goes on your PT shirt, either. Make it tangible. Make it worth it to them.

STOP making excuses
STOP leading by shame
STOP the corruption and double-standards.

START being honest with your peers and leaders.
START leading from the front
START setting an example.

You can set an example regardless of your physical condition. If a guy is fat, tell him he's fat. If you're the one that's fat, admit that you're fat. Stop hiding from it or even being ashamed of it. Stand in front of your unit, admit you've got a weight problem, tell them you're going to get in shape, and then DO IT. You will inspire your troops to do the same

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