Dog Center Europe treats soldiers — the canine kind — injured in war
KAISERSLAUTERN, Germany — It was a warm, sunny day in July when Tomi sprang from the back of a van like a jack-in-the-box.
He’s a bomb-sniffing dog, a high-energy Belgian Malinois. The only obvious sign of the shrapnel wound he had suffered the week before in Afghanistan was the red, white and blue cast on one of his hind legs, which thudded on the pavement as he bounced around to check out the people who were here to meet him. They were all surprised. They thought he’d come in on a stretcher.
It’s usually hard to tell what’s wrong with a dog when it arrives at Dog Center Europe, said Capt. Catherine Cook, an Army veterinarian and officer in charge of the working dog ward.
“Sometimes it’s really bad,” she said. “Sometimes, you’re just like, ‘Oh.’ ”
Tomi was an “Oh,” case. His ears were up, his tongue was out. He looked like he wanted to play.
But he also smelled like a urinal. Lying sedated in a kennel at Bagram Airfield, he had let himself go and didn’t know it.
Nobody mentioned his unfortunate smell as he was led into the examination room, nuzzling dog handlers and veterinarians and vet techs who treated him with the same reverence and care they would afford any other soldier injured in war.
About 15 minutes from the dog center is the U.S. military’s premier overseas hospital, Landstuhl Regional Medical Center. Its reputation has been built on caring for thousands of military men and women injured in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Any servicemember who falls seriously ill or is badly injured in Afghanistan is evacuated to Landstuhl. Any servicemember, that is, except for military working dogs.
What Landstuhl is for humans, Dog Center Europe is to dogs. It’s the first stop for all working dogs evacuated from the war, and like Landstuhl, the center has a local base of patients it cares for, some of them working dogs, more of them pets.
The center is on Pulaski Barracks, a small Army post with one main road lined with rectangular, off-white buildings with similar, rectangular brown signs out front. The center averages 40 patients a day, most of them pets coming in for routine checkups and vaccinations. During this year’s fighting season in Afghanistan, the center received just one injured dog — Tomi.
A long hall runs down the center’s spine. There’s a reception area at one end and examination rooms, storage rooms, an X-ray room and kennels in the middle. At the far end is the working dog area, with a full surgical theater, and two white boards listing the names and status of about 40 local military dogs cared for by the center. This end of the building was a busy place last year and the year before that. This year, as the troops draw down in Afghanistan, it’s been largely quiet.
Lt. Col. Kent Vince, the center director and lead surgeon, isn’t too upset about that.
Like all the soldiers here who take care of the working dogs, Vince is passionate about the work.
“These are dogs that are a lot different than pets. And while pets play an incredibly important role in everybody’s lives and they bring happiness and comfort and meaning to so many people’s lives, the military working dog is a phenomenal creature in that they’re trained to save lives, find explosives, hunt down the bad guys and, you know, they’ve got a real-world mission that makes a real difference.”
Like Tomi, many of them shrug off injuries that would disable the average human, he said.
Vince recounted the case of an Australian Special Forces dog who suffered multiple gunshot wounds in a raid in Afghanistan. The Belgian Malinois was peppered with rounds as he ran toward his target and didn’t stop until the insurgent was subdued. One of his paws was nearly blown off in the engagement. The soldiers he was with scooped him up and put him on a medical evacuation flight to Germany, where Vince helped put him back together.
He’s proud of what he did. But if he doesn’t have to do another operation on a war-wounded dog, he said, it would be “a good thing.”
Dogs of war
There are hundreds of military dogs at work in Afghanistan. Some, like Tomi, are Tactical Explosives Detection Dogs, tasked with finding hidden bombs and triggers. Some accompany Special Forces on raids to capture high-level insurgents, some sniff out contraband. Still others provide therapy for servicemembers rattled by combat, assuming a role often filled by military chaplains.
“Something about a dog just makes life better when you’re deployed,” Sgt. Tami Bush, a veterinary technician at the dog center, said.
She looks at the dogs as soldiers.
“I know what they do downrange. I know how many lives they save and how willing they are to work.”
Before he was injured, Tomi and his handler, Spc. Michael Plemmons, found more than a dozen improvised bombs in Afghanistan. On one route-clearing mission, the duo and Army engineers turned up 14 devices, Plemmons said.
Like all dog-and-handler teams, Tomi outranks his handler — he’s a sergeant.
Plemmons has a tattoo on his right arm of a dog’s paw and silhouette of a Malinois head inside a simple round bomb with a lighted fuse.
He’s not a dog handler by trade; he’s an infantryman. He volunteered for the handler job and trained with Tomi in the U.S. before deploying to eastern Afghanistan. Downrange, he said, Tomi was his closest buddy.
When Tomi got hurt, “I kept telling myself to keep calm. But I mean, it’s like watching your best friend get, you know ...,” Plemmons said, trailing off.
The day Tomi arrived in Germany, vets took off his cast to assess the damage. He had a hole through his leg; a tendon was partly shredded if not gone. It looked like the shrapnel missed the bone.
Vince recast Tomi’s leg, and Plemmons was allowed to take him back to his temporary lodging.
Two days later, Tomi was back for surgery. After sedation, he was wheeled into the X-ray room. Vince looked at the images on a computer screen and explained his plan to Plemmons and the vet techs.
A short while later, after Bush shaved Tomi’s leg and Pfc. Monique Owens inserted a tube down his throat so he could breathe, Tomi was wheeled in for surgery.
The table was prepped and the instruments unwrapped from protective coverings in a routine that appeared no different from what happens at a hospital for humans.
For two hours, Vince cut, drilled and tied Tomi’s leg back together. Instruments and monitors beeped and whirred. Owens monitored Tomi’s vitals, noting them on a chart at regular intervals.
After Vince stitched the wound shut, Tomi was wheeled for another X-ray.
“Any time we have a traumatic injury like this, you don’t always know what you’re gonna find,” Vince said. “And I think I was expecting a little bit worse-case scenario.”
The repair was easier than he expected.
They’re not all this easy.
In November, a chocolate lab named Weezy was evacuated here from Souda Bay, Greece, where he works for the Navy. He had shattered a hind leg while jumping for his favorite toy.
Vince had to do two operations to put Weezy back together. In an X-ray, Weezy’s leg is held together with so many screws that it looks less like a bone than a comb.
But by mid-December, Weezy looked to be in good shape. He goes back to the center at least twice a week for rehab. He spends about 15 minutes in a special hybrid pool-treadmill that takes some of the weight off his leg while providing resistance to help him build muscle.
Iras, an Army German shepherd, is going through the same treatment. He had started to lose control of his back legs, and Vince removed a piece of one of his vertebrae to release pressure on the affected nerves. He won’t go back to work. Instead, one of his handlers has asked to adopt him.
Tomi was laid on a cushion on the floor of a kennel, and Plemmons slouched down with him, stroking his head.
“It’s OK,” Plemmons said as Tomi tried unsuccessfully to rise. “OK. Hold still.”
Spc. Matthew Hugget, the vet tech in charge of the working dog ward, is no stranger to this kennel.
During Huggett’s first year at the center, he worked with the Australian Special Forces Malinois who almost lost his paw.
“You would think a dog that is that injured would just be wanting to attack everyone and just be the most hostile patient ever,” Huggett said. But the dog was the sweetest he’s dealt with.
That dog’s recovery took three months, and Huggett stayed with him through much of it. He sleeps in the kennel often, sometimes on the floor, sometimes on a cot, so he can monitor his patients.
“I don’t know how many nights I’ve slept here,” he said. “I really do care for animals a lot.”
Plemmons said the care the military shows for these dogs is “awesome,” but he expects it. “I mean, they’re out there doing the same job that we are,” he said. “So they should get the same treatment, regardless.”