Friday, February 22, 2008

Canine Companion Keeps Soldiers' Spirits High

Photo: Army Command Sgt. Maj. Vaneta Vaughn, the top enlisted soldier with 64th Brigade Support Battalion, 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 4th Infantry Division, Multinational Division Baghdad, scratches Dean, the battalion chaplain's dog, behind his ear at Camp Taji, Iraq, Feb. 16, 2008. Dean deployed to Iraq with the soldiers as the battalion's therapy dog. Photo by Pfc. April Campbell, USA

Hearing a noise in the hallway, Dean gets out of his bed on the floor and trots to the door as he searches the cool February air for a clue.

Once he confirms the presence of friendly forces, he cocks his long face around to see if his companion wants to go visit the soldiers in the hallway as much as he does. With all four limbs on the ground, Dean will certainly need the chaplain's help to open the door.

Dean is a 3-year-old black Labrador retriever mix and serves as a therapy dog during his deployment to Multinational Division Baghdad here with the 4th Infantry Division's 64th Brigade Support Battalion, 3rd Brigade Combat Team.

Army Capt. Phillip Rittermeyer, the battalion chaplain, adopted Dean from a shelter one month prior to the unit's deployment. Rittermeyer, who works with and cares for the dog, brought Dean with him to Iraq on official orders to provide comfort and boost the morale of the "Mountaineer" soldiers during their day-to-day activities as they operate in the northern outreaches of Baghdad province.

"I worked with a dog previously in civilian ministry," Rittermeyer said. "They help comfort people as well as lower stress and blood pressure."

Army Capt. Christi Moreno, who serves as the 3rd BCT mental health officer, also sees the benefit animals like Dean provide to soldiers in a high-stress environment.

"Animals are very therapeutic," she said. "They show unconditional love, and they're not judgmental."

When Rittermeyer must attend a meeting or preside over church services, other Mountaineer soldiers, such as Army Sgt. Tasha Jackson, a supply sergeant with Headquarters and Headquarters Company, 64th BSB, spend time taking care of and getting to know Dean. Caring for "man's best friend" is nothing new to this dog lover.

"Dean reminds me of my very first dog, Raider, who I had from the time I was in second grade until a few years after high school," Jackson said.

The loving canine helps her overcome some of the difficult times during her deployment. "If I'm having a down day and the chaplain brings Dean over for me to watch," she said, "it usually helps to cheer me up."

Between teaching the playful four-legged creature how to dance and trying not to let the dog walk her when he needs to be taken out, she added, Dean provides her with comfort that reminds her of home.

Dean stays connected with the soldiers by communicating his own needs or wants, as well. "If I'm working, he'll put his head on my lap so I'll pay attention to him," Jackson said.

Moreno said she's not surprised at the effect Dean has on the soldiers. "(Animals) bring the best out of people," she explained. "People tend to have an inherent connection with them."

As their deployment continues, Dean will continue his support operations with the Mountaineer soldiers, often bringing smiles and an eager hand to pet his black-and-white fur wherever he goes.

(Author Army Pfc. April Campbell serves in Multinational Division Baghdad with the 4th Infantry Division's 3rd Brigade Combat Team Public Affairs Office.)
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