Working Dog Spooked by War Finds Home With Wounded

Pfc. John Tani, an Army National Guard flight medic with 135th General Support Aviation Regiment, holds a treat for Joe, a black Lab who serves as a morale and therapy dog at Camp Leatherneck and Camp Bastion, Afghanistan. JENNIFER HLAD/STARS AND STRIPES

CAMP LEATHERNECK, Afghanistan -- There are plenty of working dogs at this massive Marine-built base in Helmand province. But none quite like Joe.

The friendly and always-hungry 6-year-old black Labrador deployed to Afghanistan in June 2012 with the Marines to sniff out bombs. However, his handlers soon realized that the weather, the gunfire and the explosions didn’t agree with Joe. He was deemed unsuitable to work and slated to go home.

Then, he paid a visit to the Concussion Restoration Care Center and Wounded Warrior berthing, and found his calling as a therapy dog, blessed by special permission from U.S. Central Command.

Joe seems to be able to sense who is injured, and how best to interact with that person, his handler and doctors at the facility said. Just last week, he came into the center and made a beeline for the injured Marine, then started giving him kisses, said Navy Lt. Stephanie Reim, a physical therapist at the extended care ward.

When patients are badly hurt, Joe will go to them and maybe lay next to them on a physical therapy table or just cuddle, said Mike Ough, a contractor who maintains replacement IED detector dogs for Marine Expeditionary Brigade-Afghanistan. With other patients, Joe may try to play ball with them, or run next to them on the treadmill during therapy.

“He seems to engage [the patients] in the right way,” Ough said.

Joe spends most of his days at the Concussion Restoration Care Center, playing with the medical staff if there aren’t any patients around. But many service members -- including former patients -- will come in just to say hi to Joe, Reim said.

“He makes people so much happier,” she said, which helps with the healing process.

Joe also spends one day a week sniffing around the Dust Off complex, so the pilots and flight medics who fly casualty evacuation missions get a chance to rub his head and give him a treat or two.

Chief Warrant Officer Darren Freyer, a pilot with G Company, 2nd Battalion, 135th General Support Aviation Regiment, said having Joe around “puts everybody in a good mood.”

Freyer said he misses his two dogs at home, so having Joe around once a week is nice -- even if they do have to watch him around food.

Pfc. John Tani, a flight medic who is also with G Company, 2nd of the 135th, said Joe provides “a level of normalcy” for the National Guard soldiers.

Having a good-natured pup in the office brings the stress level down, Tani said, which is nice in their line of work.

“We see everybody’s worst day,” he said.

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