News: Army veterinarians train in Alaska
Story by Master Sgt. Jeff Duran
KOTZEBUE, Alaska - When a storyteller writes about the North, they often romanticize about the biting cold, the harsh and frozen weather, and the wild, unforgiving terrain. They describe a place like Point Hope, Alaska. Point Hope is north, really north. More than 700 miles north of Anchorage, it’s a tiny village located on a spit of land that juts into the Chukchi Sea, and is considered by many to be one of the oldest and most continuously inhabited villages on the North American continent. It’s the kind of place where the locals still make their living by fishing and whaling and where arctic foxes, wolves and polar bears wander freely through town.
It’s also where the soldiers of 109th Veterinary Detachment spent their annual training.
Serving as part of Joint Innovative Readiness Training Arctic Care 2013, the 109th was on hand to work with the locals on a very real, but unexpected predator that can’t be put down with a rifle; They were there to help fight rabies.
While life can be hard this far north, it can be even harder on pets.
Though for the working canines in villages like Point Hope, referring to them as simply “pets” may be a disservice. The dogs in this remote village and others like it are more partner than pet to the people they share their lives with. The dogs of Point Hope are lifelines in this wilderness, working sled dogs and watching over their masters' homes.
But rabies is something the dogs don’t know how to fight. When some of the largest and most cunning northern predators make regular appearances in your town, the chance of rabies spreading from the wildlife is a very real danger.
“Rabies is a potentially fatal disease in human beings,” said Capt. Brian E. Joseph. “A fox comes into town. It gets in a fight with a sled dog. It bites the sled dog. The sled dog develops rabies, and before there’s any symptoms, that sled dog can be passing rabies off to a human.”
According to Joseph, veterinarian care can be very hard to come by.
Some villages have to take their animals by plane as far away as Kotzebue to get help. When a vet does make a visit, they’re often only able to stay for a few days at most. Because of this, the 109th and their two-week visit to the region can be the functional equivalent of year’s worth of care.
“These are very important missions. Up here in this area, the reason it is very important are that they are in a very austere environment and they very remote from one another and they are surrounded by wild animals,” explained Joseph.
Although the care given means a lot to the citizens of Northern Alaska, it means quite a bit the Army as well. Joseph said that going to this part of Alaska is very close to deploying to any overseas area. The training and execution of mobilization is a primary task set for any unit. Deploying to Northern Alaska gives the unit the training but still allows for fixing problems that crop up.
“The point of the mission is really training,” said Joseph. “The only difference between bringing people up here and on a deployment is the amount of time in the middle that you deliver the services.”
But everything else: preparation, medical clearance ... it is the same. It is an enormous amount of work,” said Joseph. “It helps you be prepared for the future.”
One of the key learning points of the Arctic Care mission is that just because your unit is still in the United States it doesn’t mean that you can ignore the locals and their culture and traditions.
Culture matters wherever soldiers go.
“It is not enough to focus on the military aspects. You’ve got to focus on the cultural aspects and the people too. You’ve got to understand what is important to the people,” said Joseph. He added that is was covered in-depth in pre-training and that made a big difference.
“What we do on short-term mission is we really glance off a culture. You have to know where those sensitive spots in that culture are so that you don’t glance off and leave a bruise,” explained Joseph. “We just can’t just focus on the military product that we’re delivering. We’ve got to see how it fits into their world.”
"To the native Alaskans, elders are very important. If you take the time to just stop and say hello to an older person, shake their hand, ask them their name and give them your name, then you are no longer a foreigner,” said Joseph. “We can’t understate the importance of what people care about.”
Another key goal of the mission was to reach out to the children of the villages.
“This mission has had profound influence on the kids in every town,” said Joseph.
For example, in Kotzebue, 366 kids have watched part of a surgical procedure and had the opportunity to discuss it with a vet.
Additionally, soldiers and service members spoke to science and social studies classes and gave general lectures. Soldiers accomplished these small, but important outreach efforts while still remaining on task and on mission.
Of the 11 villages the 109th Veterinary Detachment served, only Kotzebue had a population that might be considered “substantial” - with 4,000 residents. Another 4,000 were spread across the other 10 villages. Only 38 soldiers covered all those.
One of the unit’s public health goals was to provide rabies immunization for as many dogs in each village as possible. Doing that not only benefits the dogs, but it protects the health and safety of the human population as well. And there are a lot of dogs.
“Almost every house we’ve gone to had two to three dogs,” said Capt. Jennifer McDougle, who was going door-to-door in the village of Point Hope.
Point Hope has a population of about 670 in 186 households according to the 2010 Census.
“We don’t wait for the dogs to come to us. They go door-to-door. They want to immunize as many dogs as possible,” said Joseph.
McDougle said she likes going around the village to provide the services.
“It is such a great opportunity to see their culture,” said McDougle. “They’re still traditional in many ways.”
The other issue is tapeworms. This particular tapeworm that worries Joseph can lodge in the brain or the abdomen.
By deworming the dogs we are knocking that parasites out of the ballpark and once again protecting human health,” said Joseph.
The third priority is spays and neuters for people that can’t afford it or don’t have access to a veterinarian.
"There are dogs everywhere, so there are puppies everywhere,” said Joseph. “Then they interact with wild foxes and then we have a public health problem again.”
Joseph said his nine veterinarians have really pulled together for this mission and worked seamlessly without guidance.
“I couldn’t be prouder of the way they worked together,” said Joseph. “They are such good problem solvers.”
Joseph explained that when they arrived they had to build a new protocol on injectable anesthesia. The key to the collaboration was having a viable email system where the veterinarians would discuss the options. Although phone conversations were possible the schedule made email a better choice to work together. Joseph said within three days the new protocol was in place.
“Every single veterinarian would respond. That’s the way you should work. That’s just perfect,” said Joseph. “It is about problem solving. It is about teamwork. And it is so ingrained that you don’t have to tell them to do it."
Arctic Care covered all aspects of medical care. The 109th Veterinary Detachment covered the animal services but all the other services brought in doctors, nurses and dentists.
“This mission is different than any one I’ve ever done in that this one is truly purple,” explained Joseph.
“There’s not been any interservice rivalry,” said Joseph. “You’ve got people from every service. That’s the model for the military for the future. You take everybody with all their different skills and different abilities and you put them on a mission together and it is going to be a stronger mission. It’s been very rewarding.”