Ever since 1776, when George Washington requested a “regiment of horses with a farrier” to help the fight for independence, veterinarians have played a key role in military operations around the globe.
In 1916, Congress officially created the U.S. Army Veterinary Corps. Today, hundreds of veterinarians serve in our armed forces, providing care to bomb-sniffing dogs, mine-detecting dolphins and sea lions, ceremonial horses, and therapy animals. Military veterinarians also play a vital role in protecting public health.
More than 1,000 military working dogs have served in Iraq and Afghanistan since the beginning of hostilities. They are specially trained to find roadside bombs or booby traps, detect weapons or drugs at checkpoints and border crossings, and chase down suspects.
Man of 1,000 Pets
As the only military veterinarian in Turkey, Capt. Robert Hawley, DVM, operates a full-service veterinary clinic at Incirlik Air Base. A member of the Army Veterinary Corps, he and his staff of three care for 13 patrol dogs, as well as pets belonging to the base’s 5,000 service personnel and their dependents.
“We have more than 1,000 pets here on base, and I consider each and every one of them mine,” he says with a smile.
The setting is exotic, but the high-quality care pets receive is business-as-usual for Hawley. “If you brought your dog or cat into our clinic, you wouldn’t notice much difference from your veterinarian back in the States,” he says. “We’ve got state-of-the-art equipment, X-ray machines, a dental work station, digital processors, and the latest surgical instruments.”
Hawley also serves as a food inspector for the Corps. He travels throughout Turkey and to Cyprus, Greece, Bulgaria, and Armenia to ensure that companies producing food for the U.S. military meet quality standards. Hawley says his job sometimes feels like a scene from the movie Planes, Trains, and Automobiles.
Recently, he flew to Istanbul and took a taxi to the train station. From there he rode a train to the harbor to catch the next ferry. After a two-hour cab ride, he was finally able to inspect a company that supplies bottled water.
“Food inspection is the most frustrating, yet satisfying, part of my job,” the 39-year-old says. “It’s frustrating because of the travel, having to arrange for interpreters and so forth. But it is rewarding knowing that what I do can affect the lives and health of hundreds of thousands of service personnel and their families.”
Last year, Hawley received the 2007 Above and Beyond Award, which names the top veterinarian among the nearly 400 who serve in the corps.
The work is demanding and dangerous, and some canine soldiers lose their lives in action. But thanks to the Veterinary Corps, countless others have been saved.
Dogs aren’t the only animals on the front line. Veterinarians also care for the health needs of dolphins and sea lions that are trained to find enemy swimmers and mines or other dangerous objects on the ocean floor.
What many people don’t realize is the important role the Veterinary Corps plays in protecting public health.
Capt. Robert Hawley, DVM, who established the Army’s first AAHA-accredited veterinary practice while serving in Huntsville, Ala., is currently stationed at Incirlik Air Base in Turkey and is responsible for inspecting nearby food and water plants. Hawley and his fellow veterinarians evaluate more than 3,800 food producers in more than 80 countries to ensure safe food for U.S. service members and their families in the United States and overseas.
Military veterinarians are also charged with preventing and controlling zoonotic diseases — illnesses that are transmitted from animals to humans, such as West Nile virus, rabies, and leishmaniasis — and possible bioterrorism diseases, such as tularemia and plague. One way they do this is by providing care for pets of military personnel. Flea control for all animals on a military base is not only good medicine; it is good strategy for inhibiting the spread of plague.
Army veterinarians contribute to research and development as well. Their work ranges from breast cancer research to developing new smallpox and malaria vaccines.
This article originally appeared in PetsMatter Volume 3 Issue 2, published by the American Animal Hospital Association. Copyright © 2009 AAHA. Find out more.