Sergeant First Class Budge and Sergeant First Class Boe have no last name and no one is required to salute them; but, they are headed to Iraq as the US Army's first therapy dogs for soldiers in combat. They were given a higher rank than their human handlers because the Army wanted to ensure that they receive the respect of the rank.
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Budge and Boe have an important job to do. They have been assigned to the Army's Stress Unit in Tikrit and Mosul to help the soldiers deal with the stress of fighting overseas. "Our hope is that it brings some normalcy to the soldiers," said Sgt. Mike Calaway, an occupational therapist based in Tikrit, who will handle Boe. "The human-animal bond will help relax them."
"The dogs won't just be playmates for the troops," said Sgt. Jack Greene, another occupational therapist who will take Budge back with him to Mosul. "The major thing is, they are going to help us knock down the stigma around mental health," he said.
The dogs were trained at the Guide Dog Foundation for the blind in Smithtown, NY. Before heading off to Iraq, the black Labrador Retrievers had to complete rigorous training. They went to the shooting range at Brookhaven National Laboratory where they were exposed to the sounds of submachine guns and hand guns. They were taken to the Long Island MacArthur Airport where helicopters hovered with the wind whipping at their fur. They were even taken during the busy holiday season to Smithhaven Mall which was designed to test their reaction to chaotic crowds. All of their training will prepare them for deployment to Iraq.
According to Major Arthur Yeager, an occupational therapist based at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, "This is very touchy-feely, no doubt about it, but this works. I know it works. I've seen it work. These dogs are stress sponges." Yeager also explains that not every soldier welcomes the idea of visiting the Stress Unit. Many have difficulty asking for help. That's where Budge and Boe come in. "To have a dog come up and nudge your hand – I have yet to see even the hardest soldier refuse that," Yeager explain.