MWDs wage war on combat stress

  • Published
  • By Senior Airman Tiffany M. Grigg
  • 23d Wing Public Affairs
For a military member, the word 'Afghanistan' may bring thoughts of bombings, gun fire and other war-related memories. For a dog, it's simply a word unknown to them.

To prepare military working dogs for deployments downrange, the dogs undergo pre-deployment training consisting of simulated gun fire and explosions at a mock village as a means of mentally preparing them for war. However, simulations can only get so close to the real thing.

"The dogs go through pre-deployment training to see how they react to the explosions and it gives them an environment like what they will experience downrange," said U.S. Army Capt. Megan Branham, 23d Aerospace Medicine Squadron officer in charge of veterinary clinic. "A dog might do well here during pre-deployment training but there's not really a way to know for sure if they will act the same while deployed."

For MWD Diyi, a 3-year-old Belgian Malanois assigned to the 822nd Base Defense Squadron here, being on a four and half month deployment in Afghanistan took its toll.

"Just like humans, you have to think of the whole dog," said Branham. "Yes, it is important if they have a broken leg or something else that you can see through tests, but dogs, just like humans, have to be mentally prepared to go [on a deployment]. Also, thinking of their job, which is bomb detection, it is not only important to make sure they are mentally ready for their own well being but also the well being of the service members they are deployed with. They are dependent on each other."

While assigned to the 7th Special Forces Group in Afghanistan, U.S. Air Force Senior Airman Brandon Johnson, 822nd Base Defense Squadron MWD handler, began noticing the changes in Diyi's behavior.

"We were with Army special forces while we were there and our primary focus was to go out and find bombs to keep the locals and us safe," said Johnson. "Diyi did have multiple [explosive] finds, and he definitely saved some lives, but we were in a lot of firefights, and got blown up a lot. Every time we went out, we were shot at and he didn't like it, so he just stopped working."

Johnson recalls a specific instance when he realized that Diyi wasn't able to continue on with the mission.

"I don't like talking about it really ...," said Johnson. "We were running through a field, getting shot at and Diyi laid down in the middle of the field, and I had to drag him [to safety]."

Due to the stress of the deployment and the association of the dangers with his handler, Diyi exhibited signs of aggression toward Johnson even after returning back to Moody. With the aggression, anxiousness and other signs Diyi was showing, he was diagnosed with canine post traumatic stress disorder.

"To diagnose canine PTSD, we rely heavily on what the handler can tell us about his dog," said Branham. "Based on Diyi's actions when he was deployed and how his handler describes how Diyi's responses to certain situations has changed, we have to assume it is PTSD. The dog can't tell you if he is having nightmares or anxieties. You just have to take it at face value and trust that the handler knows his dog."

Although MWD Diyi had a rough time downrange, he has shown improvement since returning home.

"He was very aggressive toward me when we first got back. I guess he associated me with the bombings and gunfire. He wouldn't let me get close to him like this," added Johnson as he bends over to pet Diyi.

With the deployment behind him and daily progression toward his normal self, Diyi can expect to be deployment ready again thanks to the care of his handler and his vet clinic.

(Editor's note: This is the second in a series on military working dogs at Moody Air Force Base, Ga.)