The Best Defense

Rebecca's War Dog of the Week: Leska's Visit to the Dentist

By Rebecca Frankel
Best Defense Chief Canine Correspondent

Maintaining a military working dog's health is crucial and handlers are given extensive training on how to care for their dogs -- from grooming them to administering emergency care in a combat scenario. They learn to read their dogs for signs of pain, dehydration, gastrointestinal issues, spider bites, and dental problems.

An MWD that has a broken tooth or teeth that are worn down from age will not only be in some degree of pain (which could impede their eating and appetite) but won't be able to bite with full capacity. In the photo above, U.S. Navy Master-at-Arms 3rd Class Ashly Lester, a military working dog handler, carries MWD Leska off the operating table after a surgery to remove a broken incisor at the camp's medical facility on April 2. The pair is on assignment at Camp Lemonnier in Djibouti.

From the handlers I've interviewed over the years, it's not uncommon to hear that the most proactive and committed among them have not only been present to observe their dog's procedures and surgeries, but have scrubbed in and lent a helping hand. (In this photo, Leska is intubated during her surgery.)

Occasionally, when veterinarians aren't on hand to manage medical procedures, doctors, or in this case dentists, who treat people will take over. It's not at all uncommon in a combat theater where veterinary technicians aren't on the scene, or even at a home station, for a medic with a unit to treat a dog -- especially if the handler is incapacitated. A good case in point: In August 2013, the dentists from the 2nd Dental Squadron performed a root canal on MWD Zzeki at the Veterinary Treatment Facility at Barksdale Air Force Base in Louisiana.

But, obviously, operating on a dog's mouth poses certain challenges for someone used to a human's set of teeth. "The largest difference in patients is the length of the tooth," said Maj. (Dr.) Richard Howard, 2nd DS chief of endodontics at Barksdale. "In this case of performing a root canal, the tooth is longer and thinner, requiring us to change the tools and techniques we use."

As Capt. (Dr.) Stephen Boh, a dental resident at Barksdale said, "During dental school there are lectures and pictures to familiarize us with canine anatomy." But, he concedes, "the best way to learn this is to actually perform the operation." And while there may be few opportunities to treat dogs, he views the ability to treat military working dogs a tremendous asset. "...[W]hat I'm learning now will have an impact in my career when I'm down range and I could possibly be the only dental specialist in the area to help keep MWDs mission-ready."

Above, Leska wakes up after her surgery is over, maybe a little groggy from the anesthesia. Her handler is there by her side to greet her. Not to worry, Leska made a full recovery from the surgery.

Rebecca Frankel is senior editor, special projects at Foreign Policy. Her forthcoming book War Dogs: Tales of Canine Heroism, History, and Love comes out on Oct. 14 from Palgrave Macmillan.

U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Eric Dietrich/Released

The Best Defense

The New York Times op-ed page owes our vets a large and immediate apology

By Jesse Sloman
Best Defense guest columnist

Kathleen Belew's New York Times op-ed "Veterans and White Supremacy" has generated a fierce response for its attempt to connect military service with membership in white supremacist groups. I hope that Dr. Belew and the Times editorial staff don't dismiss the palpable anger they've prompted in the veteran community as a knee-jerk reaction to an unflattering portrayal. Instead, alongside a sense of collective outrage at being subjected to tired and ill-informed stereotyping, most of the criticism I've read has been sober, thoughtful, well-informed, and centered around the op-ed's analytical flaws and inadequate research.

First, despite some veiled implications, Dr. Belew fails to show any empirical evidence of a causal relationship between military service and membership in white supremacy groups. The closest she comes is her statement that "the return of veterans from combat appears to correlate more closely with Klan membership than any other historical factor." That is an extremely bold assertion, one that arguably anchors her entire thesis, and it merits far more than the brief two-sentence treatment she provides. In the absence of a rigorous assessment of the available data, we are left to rely on Dr. Belew's word that war has "fueled every surge in Ku Klux Klan membership in American history, from the 1860s to the present." Given the enormous breadth of that dataset, which seems to encompass everything from the armies of the Civil War to the one-third minority volunteer force the United States fields today, it is irresponsible of Dr. Belew to make such a far-reaching claim without spending more time describing her methodology.

Second, as J.M. Berger has pointed out, Dr. Belew's thesis suffers from a framing problem. She very persuasively argues that Vietnam veterans had an outsized role as leaders of white supremacy groups from the 1970s to the 1990s. However, the fact that vets once made up a disproportionate portion of Klan leadership does not also mean that a disproportionate percentage of veterans are likely to become white supremacists. Making that logical leap is akin to saying that because the vast majority of suicide bombings have been carried out by young men, young men have a propensity to become suicide bombers. As Dr. Belew admits herself, the number of Vietnam vets who participated in white supremacist groups was "a tiny percentage of those who served" and "a vast majority of veterans are neither violent nor mentally ill."

Finally, although Dr. Belew includes some menacing quotes from a 2009 Homeland Security intelligence estimate and alleges that the threat the report described "proved real," she provides no real-life example of an Iraq or Afghanistan veteran committing violence after being radicalized by a white supremacist group. She also fails to mention that the estimate lists just three citations to back up its assessment of the veteran population, one of which is a 2008 FBI report which concludes that "some veterans of the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan have joined the extremist movement. However, they have not done so in numbers sufficient to stem declines among major national extremist organizations.... Nor has their participation resulted in a demonstrably more violent extremist movement."

There is room for a thoughtful and considered discussion about the presence of veterans in white supremacist groups. I am not advocating that we should ignore the ugly history of white extremism in certain segments of the Army in the 1990s, the former soldier Wade Michael Page's murderous rampage in a Sikh temple in 2012, or pretend that some of the 23 million vets in America today aren't racists who belong to the KKK. However, there is simply no evidence in this op-ed to support Dr. Belew's central claim that there is anything more than a tangential link between membership in white supremacist organizations and service in the U.S. military. To her credit, Dr. Belew is more measured than the Times editors. They chose to splash an inflammatory graphic beneath a misleading title and go to press with little thought for the feelings of a veteran community that is already reeling from poor reporting spurred by the Fort Hood shooting.

A recent poll conducted by the Washington Post and the Kaiser Family Foundation found that seven out of 10 veterans "feel[s] that the average American routinely misunderstands their experience" and "more than 1.4 million vets feel disconnected from civilian life." Dr. Belew's op-ed makes that case with crystal clarity. Many Americans still view veterans through a binary lens, sometimes as heroes, sometimes as monsters, but seldom as the individuals we are. Dr. Belew and the Times should use their platforms to help expand our nation's understanding of its servicemembers, not continue to narrow it.
Jesse Sloman is an officer in the U.S. Marine Corps Reserve and a member of the Truman National Security Project's Defense Council.