'Chaplain with the Dog' breaks down barriers at Fort Bliss, Afghanistan
By DAVID BURGE | El Paso (Texas) Times | Published: July 7, 2014
FORT BLISS, Texas — She is known simply as the "Chaplain with the Dog" to the many soldiers she has served with at Fort Bliss and Afghanistan and even to the people she meets in the El Paso community.
Chaplain Maj. Karen Hallett has a sidekick she is seen almost everywhere with — her dog, Sgt. Zoe, a psychiatric service dog who is trained to help people dealing with post traumatic stress.
Hallett, 49, from Vernon, N.J., has had Sgt. Zoe since February 2012 and uses her as a way to break down barriers and provide additional support to the soldiers in her unit and around the Army.
Her dog can often be seen laying in the doorway of her office at West Fort Bliss, beckoning visitors.
"Here is how it works," Hallett said. "Someone comes by. Zoe is laying out in the hallway. She's cute. They stop. They pet her. I have a chance to say, 'Hey, how are you doing? What's going on?' Very often, they will come in and sit down and talk about whatever. It opens a door that wouldn't be open to me normally.
"I almost can't get work done in my office, which is what we want as a chaplain," she said. "We want people to stop by."
Hallett, a nondenominational Christian chaplain, has been the brigade chaplain for 402nd Field Artillery Brigade, First Army, Division West at Fort Bliss since April 2013.
Before that, she served as the brigade chaplain for the 411th Engineer Brigade, a reserve unit out of New York state. While with the 411th, she deployed to Afghanistan in 2012-13 and brought the dog with her.
Zoe, an adorable black Labrador, was a huge hit with the troops in Afghanistan - at Bagram Airfield and anywhere else the pair traveled.
"It was a phenomenal experience," Hallett said. "I can't tell you the number of ways she impacted my ministry there. I would literally get calls and emails from people, 'Are you the "Chaplain with the Dog" and can you come over to our unit?'"
Hallett said she has hundreds of stories of how Sgt. Zoe has impacted her ability to reach her fellow soldiers and could talk all day about the dog.
As an example, they were flying back to Bagram in Afghanistan and the flight crew for the airplane they were on wanted a photo with the dog when they landed.
"The pilot is standing there and we're chatting," Hallett said. "Everyone has gotten off the plane. That couple of minutes turned into a two-hour counseling for the pilot who was devastated cause his marriage was falling apart."
If not for her dog, she would have never had that chance to break the ice with that pilot who needed her help, Hallett said.
At Fort Bliss, Hallett is responsible for providing religious support to about 400 soldiers and their families who are part of the 402nd Field Artillery Brigade. The brigade runs the Mobilization Training Center at Fort Bliss and is responsible for training National Guard and Reservists before they deploy. The brigade also does the in-processing work for these troops when they return from deployments. Counting those soldiers, Hallett can be responsible for the spiritual needs of up to 4,000 troops depending on the time of year.
Chaplain Lt. Col. Karen Meeker, the 1st Armored Division chaplain at Fort Bliss, said the installation is blessed to have both Hallett and Sgt. Zoe.
"Zoe, a constant companion by the side of Chaplain Hallett, expresses the love and care of God for soldiers," Meeker said. "There is nothing like the loyalty and affection of a friendly dog like Zoe to make anybody feel a little better."
Hallett got the idea for incorporating a dog into her ministry during her first deployment to Afghanistan in 2010-11 when she went as a chaplain in support of the 101st Airborne Division "Air Assault."
Bagram Airfield had a detachment of mine dogs that would be brought out for base functions like fun runs, Hallett said. She saw how the soldiers, who were so far away from their families, flocked to the dogs.
That gave her the inspiration to bring a dog with her when she returned to Afghanistan with her next unit, the 411th Engineer Brigade.
Her brigade commander then, Brig. Gen. David Weeks, told her that whatever she felt she needed for the deployment, to go and get it.
So, Hallett contacted Puppies Behind Bars, a nonprofit organization out of New York City, which uses inmates to train psychiatric service dogs.
Puppies Behind Bars gave Hallett a dog to take to Afghanistan and incorporate into her ministry. "They thought it was a great idea for a chaplain to have a dog," she said.
Hallett has a different background than many Army chaplains. She is a 1988 graduate from the U.S. Military Academy and served as a commissioned ordnance officer from 1988 to 1992. She then left the Army and took what she described as an "18-year corporate break."
During that time, she ran her own business, building and managing cell phone towers. She was also involved as a minister at various churches including being an associate pastor from 1998 to 2006 at Glenwood Baptist Church in New Jersey. She then went to seminary and graduated from Bethel Seminary in St. Paul, Minn., with a master of divinity in 2008. She commissioned into the Chaplain Corps in 2009 and began her second stint in the Army.
"Being an Army chaplain is a good fit for me," Hallett said. "I'm a very hands-on minister. I just can't stand church committees. For me, being active in the Army was a much better way to go."
She credits Weeks with the 411th Engineer Brigade and her current commander with the 402nd Field Artillery Brigade, Col. Carolyn Birchfield, with giving her the support she needs to succeed as a chaplain.