Friday, February 22, 2008

Boe Knows

February 22, 2008

We are all familiar with the concept of stress. Who among us is not living with some level of stress? We are even familiar with the term Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, especially now that soldiers have been to Iraq and Afghanistan, and some, upon returning home, have exhibited symptoms of PTSD. And just as stress is a word that gets thrown around a lot, PTSD is a label that is easily slapped on any soldier, and soldiers have enough to carry; they don’t need the added weight of our assumptions and judgments.
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder is very real. There are many soldiers who will be legitimately diagnosed with PTSD, and probably just as many who will go undiagnosed, or who won’t exhibit the symptoms until later, maybe much later.
There are soldiers trained to help fellow soldiers with the pressures that come from being deployed in a warzone. At COB Speicher in Tikrit, the 85th Medical Detachment Combat Stress Control Unit occupies an unassuming building across the street from the heavily-trafficked PX and fast food restaurants—perhaps the more popular outlets for stress: shopping and eating.
“Combat stress” might suggest that the source of stress in a warzone is always combat-related. Certainly there are soldiers who go outside the wire regularly, and who encounter IEDs or small arms fire at least some of the time, soldiers who might be experts on that type of stress. But generally much of the stress experienced in a combat zone is more a byproduct of just being away from home. The base becomes a second home, and it is hard to keep house in two places thousands of miles apart.
Many of the soldiers in Iraq now have been to Iraq before. Many were here for twelve months (often more than once), home for twelve months (some of those spent training for the next deployment), and now they are back in Iraq for fifteen months. Fifteen is the new twelve. Fifteen months is a long time to be away from one’s family and friends and familiar surroundings. And freedom.
In some ways, life is simple while deployed. Every day is about work and working out, eating and sleeping. All of the mundane chores associated with life back in the States fall away. Which is where it gets complicated. Those left at home feel… left. Running a household alone, especially if this includes raising children, is not easy. And all of this is compounded by the worrying that comes with being a part of a deployed soldier’s life.
Just about every base in Iraq, large or small, has a room or building with phones and computers soldiers can use to stay in touch. There is no privacy, and it is almost impossible not to overhear pieces of phone conversations, especially when they become heated. Many arguments are about money. Many relationships that were not so solid to begin with cannot be held together with phone calls and e-mail messages. A soldier may feel stuck in time, every day the same, but at home life goes on, whether the soldier is there or not. All of this is out of his or her control, which is not a good feeling.
At the Combat Stress Control building, soldiers will find a kind and sympathetic ear. Sometimes just giving voice to the nagging frustrations and pressures that build from one month to the next is enough to lighten the load. Captain Bret Moore, with a doctorate in psychology and on his second deployment, and other members of the team can offer support and stress management solutions, and obviously they have their own experiences to draw from that help deepen their understanding of deployment-related issues.
Sometimes help is hard to ask for. Soldiers are trained to endure situations and conditions that would break most of us, so they might feel asking for help is a sign of weakness. This is when it is helpful to have another sort of expert available. The Combat Stress Control Unit has just such an expert. Her name is Boe, and she is a licensed therapy dog who is an expert at giving and receiving love and affection.
Boe was a gift to the 101st from a non-profit organization called VetDogs, which has developed a program dedicated to training dogs to work with soldiers. Many of the dogs are trained to help disabled veterans, but recently the program expanded and on December 25, 2007, Boe and Budge, another therapy dog, made the trip to Iraq to offer that kind of support that only an animal can to active-duty soldiers.
Sergeant Mike Calaway flew to New York to the Guide Dog Foundation for the Blind, which VetDogs is a part of, and spent a week with the dogs learning what they are capable of and how to work with them. Budge is at a base in Northern Iraq, and Boe is with Mike at Speicher. Boe is a gentle black Labrador Retriever, who often roams the halls of the Combat Stress Control building carrying her favorite teddy bear in her mouth.
The addition of a therapy dog like Boe to the staff at the Combat Stress Control Unit is significant. She and Budge are the first dogs being used in a combat zone for this purpose, and hopefully will pave the way for more dogs at more bases. Soldiers who would never think of entering the CSC building to seek help might stop by to visit with Boe. And when the members of the CSC team go out to talk to groups of soldiers about combat stress, a guest appearance by Boe helps break the ice and provides the perfect excuse for soldiers who need an excuse to visit the CSC.
It is impossible to predict how the war in Iraq, with its particular brand of violence and injuries, and its multiple deployments, will affect the soldiers in the long term. Many of them will be affected forever by what happened while they were in Iraq, but as Captain Moore says, “This doesn’t mean they are broken, just changed.”
It would be nice if the war in Iraq changed all of us. It would be nice if it taught us to treat each other better, to help each other with our burdens, instead of adding to them. It would be nice if it taught us to live more simply, instead of surrounding ourselves with status symbols and distractions. Boe knows these things. We need more Boes. More Boes equals less woes.
For more information about therapy dogs and the work of VetDogs and the Guide Dog Foundation for the Blind, please refer to: and

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