Saturday, January 17, 2009

Soldier Takes Love of Animals to Job in Iraq

Army Spc. Jessica Opper has been taking care of animals since she was a child growing up in Cleveland and is continuing that tradition while deployed to Iraq.

As a child, Opper gladly took care of her family's horses and cats. At a young age, she even volunteered at a local stray animal clinic alongside her mother and brother.

While helping at the clinic, Opper took on jobs such as feeding, bathing and making sure the animals exercised. These tasks ultimately led her to decide to be an animal caretaker. Little did she realize that her dream would come true, and she would be taking care of specialized search dogs on the other side of the world while lending her support in the fight against terrorism.

Opper first joined the Army Reserve to work with the 4211th U.S. Army Hospital in San Diego, where she served as an animal care specialist, or veterinarian technician. After serving in the Reserve, Opper decided to re-enlist for active duty in 2007.

Opper's first assignment was at Fort Leonard Wood, Mo., where she took part in caring for specialized search dogs as part of the 94th Engineer Detachment (Canine). The detachment is attached to Multinational Division Baghdad's 890th Engineer Battalion, 926th Engineer Brigade.

Soon after, Opper found herself in Iraq doing her part to maintain the health of the animals whose jobs are vital to the success of the mission. The specialized search dogs are trained to locate hazards such as roadside bombs and weapons caches.

When the dog team goes out on missions, it is her job to take care of the animals at a moment's notice. Generally, dog handlers have a first-aid bag with the necessary tools to maintain the health of their partner dog. If for some reason handlers can't provide aid, they alert Opper for anything that requires immediate medical attention beyond their control.

"My job is to maintain the health of the dogs and to assist if there is a medical emergency," Opper said. "I've got a job where I play with dogs all day. I'm proud to say that I love my job.

"At a veterinarian clinic, you can do this all of the time," she said. "To have had the experience that I have managed to gain through this deployment is really good to have under my belt when I decide to do this type of work as a civilian veterinarian."

An ordinary day for Opper starts by making sure the dogs have the proper equipment before heading out. Checkups are a regular procedure, and if a dog needs a shot, Opper is the person to do the job. She said she enjoys her routine of playing with the dogs to help them relax before doing the exams.

Once the dogs have left for a mission, Opper helps with supplies and dispatching vehicles for her fellow soldiers. Her time also is occupied when she assumes full responsibility for a dog when its handler is on leave.

"You tend to get attached to the dogs, even if you're just keeping them until their handler comes back -- that can be a bummer. I love my job and being an animal lover just makes it that much better," Opper said.

On her downtime, Opper said she likes to relax by taking online classes to further her education in hopes of becoming a veterinarian. She also has taken an interest in learning to speak German because her grandfather is native to Germany, which Opper hopes to visit.

"Spc. Opper has done a great job in taking care of our beloved dogs," Army Sgt. 1st Class Jonathan Harmon, the division's kennel master, said. "They are soldiers, too. Her knowledge and the fact that she truly enjoys her job really shows and truly contributes to our mission success."

(Author Army Sgt. Carmen Guerrero serves in the Multinational Division Baghdad's 890th Engineering Battalion, 926th Engineering Brigade public affairs office.)
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