By Michele C. Hollow of Pet News and Views
Looking up from their chores to catch a quick glance of Sergeant 1st Class Zack, a noncommissioned four-legged officer, play a game of tug-of-war does a lot more than bring a smile to the faces of the service men and women at Joint Base in Balad, Iraq. Seeing Zack, a Labrador Golden Retriever mix, breaks down barriers.
“It can be just a few seconds,” says Brian Christman, an occupational therapy specialist with the 98th Medical Combat Stress Control Detachment who hails from Niceville, FL., and is Zack’s handler. “People tell me seeing Zack brightens their day. And more importantly it takes them away from the stress in their lives.”
Zack, who is part of the prevention program at Joint Base in Balad, was donated to the program by America’s Vet Dogs. “He’s a big part of the prevention team,” says Sergeant Christman.
The prevention program provides combat stress and marriage classes, anger and stress management, tobacco cessation, and warrior resiliency training. Zack’s role on the team is to get people to start talking.
“Basically what we do is provide soldiers with the tools through classes to help them get through their deployment,” Sergeant Christman explains. “When I’m out with Zack people approach us instead of us having to approach them. We make small talk, and often they open up about their problems. Most people relax around Zack. He’s so playful, and his tail is almost always wagging. He brings a sense of normalcy to the base.”
One soldier remarked that Zack, “made his problems go away for the moment.”
“Seeing a dog on a military base is unusual,” says Sergeant Christman. “Some people will open up and say that they are having an issue. Others will make small talk. Either way, it’s a start. I have resources available to get them the help they need. Being here is stressful. This might be someone’s first deployment to Iraq or their third or fourth.”
“I know most of the people here would not come up and tell me their issues. They wouldn’t feel comfortable doing that. But Zack is a door opener. He is the first step of the prevention program.”
Christman wants all military personnel to know they can get assistance. “Not all units have therapy dogs,” he explains. “We are fortunate to have Zack. The bottom line is that the military provides services to all men and women who serve. They need to talk to their local combat stress or behavioral health unit or talk to their chain of command to ask about this program.”