When Captain Sean McPeck first set foot on Afghani soil, it was like stepping into an oven with the temperature set to broil. A member of the U.S. Army Veterinary Corps, 463rd Medical Detachment Veterinary Services, the military veteran was used to extreme conditions, but 153 unrelenting degrees in the high desert was particularly brutal. With that welcome, his deployment to Afghanistan, Operation Enduring Freedom, and a year of highs and lows, began.
Routine Care and Tending to Wounded Warriors
There are many different types of dogs serving in the military – Laborador retrievers, Belgian Malinois, and German shepherds, to name a few – that serve a number missions including safeguarding military bases and activities, detecting bombs and other explosives before they inflict harm, providing a morale boost with camp visits and “puppy” therapy, and assisting special operations units on raids.
For the dogs, the serious business of war is mostly a game, and the dogs are always excited for an adventure. A job well done results in getting a favorite ball, a belly rub, and a “good dog.” With loyalty and heart, they work with their handlers to protect American troops serving in dangerous parts of the world. Dr. McPeck, a member of the Colorado State University DVM Class of 2010, and other Army veterinarians, provide routine care for the dogs, from vaccinations to physical exams, skin and paw care, deworming, and dealing with a huge prevalence of disease vectors; to caring for dogs injured during missions and medevac’d back to the veterinary hospital at Camp Dwyer.
“These dogs are canine soldiers and their units are committed to caring for them,” said Dr. McPeck. “Many soldiers have let me know that if it wasn’t for the dogs, they probably wouldn’t have come home alive. They’re out there saving lives every day and also are a big boost to soldier morale.”
Protecting Soldiers from the Hard Truth of Rabies
Rabies is endemic in Afghanistan and prevalent in the feral dog and cat population. But American soldiers also care for many of these animals, adopting them as camp pets. Last year, this mix of disease and compassion turned deadly when a soldier died of rabies after being bitten by a dog. Charged with first protecting the fighting force, human and dog, the veterinary corps received the order to euthanize all camp-adopted dogs and cats, a particularly difficult task given the bonds that had formed between young soldiers and their four-legged rescues.
“A young soldier doesn’t understand why we had to do that – the emotional aspect was really tough,” said Dr. McPeck. “But we are here to protect the fighting force, and one very important aspect is to keep them safe from non-battle diseases like leischmaniasis, and killers like rabies.”
Education, Outreach and Food Inspection
Dr. McPeck’s job doesn’t begin and end at caring for canine soldiers. He also spends a lot of time on continuing education for human doctors and medics, who may be the first responders to an injured dog. Because the number of veterinarians is limited in Afghanistan, there are not enough to meet the needs of the canine units.
“I did an emergency abdominal surgery with the assistance of a human-orthopedic surgeon and a human-surgery nurse both scrubbed in. I utilized my emergency medevac’s and surgeries to train the human care providers and get amazing assistance. It made my job easier and increased the odds of the military working dogs having trained personnel nearby in case they got injured,” said Dr. McPeck.
Veterinarians also are responsible for food inspection, ensuring that soldiers’ food supply is safe, and outreach to local communities.
“One thing that really struck me was the lack of material goods that the Afghan people have,” said Dr. McPeck. “No brooms, pens, pencils, no clutter in their lives, just a complete lack of stuff. It made me realize how much we take for granted.”
It’s Not Every Day You Get to Save a Calf
A camel calf, that is. It was the middle of the night when the dromadarian camel calf stumbled into Camp Dwyer, bawling for its mother, its herd nowhere to be found. A Marine security guard picked up the baby and brought her to Dr. McPeck. She was dehydrated and weak, so he placed an IV catheter and gave her fluids, and was also able to get her to suckle vanilla soy milk from the finger of a latex glove. Then came the task of getting the calf back to her herd, spotted earlier by overhead surveillance units.
“This was a multi-national effort to save and protect local Afghan wildlife,” said Dr. McPeck. Camp Dwyer is in the heart of camel country, in the southern aspect of the Helmand Province. “I was able to get a security escort and two Jordanian Army Bedouin tribesmen to assist me in rejoining the baby with its mother. This is a great example of when an exception to policy was made because of the value a female camel has to the local Afghan community.”
Sand Storms that Swallow the Earth
From inferno-on-earth temperatures in the summer, to frozen port-o-potties in the winter, the weather in Afghanistan poses a risk to humans and dogs alike. Dr. McPeck trained soldiers to be on the look-out for dehydration and heat stroke in their dogs, and take precautions to ensure when they were out on patrol they were given plenty of rest and water. Handlers also were trained in administering IV fluids. Perhaps the most ominous climatological events were the sand storms – massive and black, billowing over wind-swept lands, laying the camp low for days on end.
What Next for Dr. McPeck?
Originally from Alaska, Dr. McPeck graduated from high school in 1995 and enlisted in the U.S. Army. He served in the 3rd Ranger Battalion for four years before leaving active duty at the rank of sergeant and joining the Alaska National Guard 207th LRSD. From there, he decided to attend the University of Houston where he earned his Bachelor of Science degree in biology, and was commissioned as an Infantry Second Lieutenant in the Army Reserves. Interested in veterinary medicine, he applied to and was accepted into the Professional Veterinary Medical Program at Colorado State University. He transferred to the Colorado National Guard and Served in the 19th Special Forces Group. After his first year of veterinary studies, Dr. McPeck received a U.S. Army Health Professions Scholarship. After graduation with his Doctor of Veterinary Medicine, Class of 2010, he became active duty and was promoted to the rank of Captain.
Dr. McPeck currently is stationed in Fort Benning, Georgia, where he is undergoing training as his veterinary unit refits to support Disaster CBRNE Relief Force missions (CBRNE stands for chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear, and high-yield explosives). He is still unsure of his plans after he completes his obligation to the Army.
(Dr. McPeck took a Colorado State University flag to Afghanistan where it was flown on a Blackhawk Medevac helicopter that was conducting a mission to evacuate an injured military working dog. The flag also was flown in honor of Colorado State University over the headquarters of the United State Army’s 115th Combat Support Hospital at Camp Dwyer, and on a Marine Cobra helicopter during combat. An American flag was flown in honor of Colorado State University and the College of Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Sciences, also at Camp Dwyer.)