FORWARD OPERATING BASE MASUM GHAR, Afghanistan — Soldiers from the 3rd Infantry 21st Battalion of Task Force Arctic Wolves hang around talking and smoking cigarettes at the entrance to the dusty brigade headquarters of Forward Operating Base Masum Ghar in Kandahar province in Afghanistan.
Sgt. 1st Class Zeke approaches, and the soldiers flock to him, dropping to their knees.
They want to pet Sgt. Zeke.
Zeke is a black Labrador and therapy dog, part of the 113th Medical Detachment Combat Stress Control, an Army Reserve unit mobilized to support the 1st Stryker Brigade Combat Team, 25th Infantry Division’s “Arctic Wolves” in southern Afghanistan.
“Whenever you see a dog, it makes your day a bit better,” said Spc. James Sroka, 22, from Pinckneyville, Ill., as he ran his hands over Zeke’s back again and again. He misses his dog.
It’s a common reaction, said Sgt. Paul McCollough, 28, Zeke’s primary handler, from Santa Fe, N.M. “Everything stops. The guys come out of nowhere.”
Zeke serves as an icebreaker for the members of Combat Stress Control. He’s approachable when social workers and therapists may not be.
“We’ve had more contacts today than we’ve ever had,” said Maj. Renee Reagan, 45, of Charleston, S.C., a clinical social worker who works at the Veterans Affairs office in Charleston when she’s not on orders with the Army.
There’s no problem visiting with a dog.
“There’s still that stigma — talking with a therapist, behavior health,” McCollough said. “There’s no stigma associated with coming up to talk to a dog. A dog’s non-judgmental.”
The Combat Stress Control team is designed to be both proactive and reactive. Its members visit combat outposts, with or without Zeke, and meet with soldiers to discuss relationship and home-front issues, operational stress and combat stress.
“We treat the wounds that don’t bleed,” McCollough said.
And they’re called in when soldiers are injured or killed. Twenty soldiers from the Fairbanks-based Stryker brigade have been killed since the deployment began in April.
“When there is a traumatic event, we’re out there for one to three days,” Reagan said. “We meet the soldiers typically by squad. We get them to talk about it, the event and their feelings. We try to identify any at-risk soldiers and can meet with them individually. Our role is basically to help the soldiers where they’re at.
“The leadership is very supportive of us,” Reagan said.
And of Zeke.
Zeke has been in the Army five and half years and, like many Fort Wainwright soldiers, is a veteran of multiple deployments.
“This is his third deployment,” McCollough said. “Been there. Done that.”
“It’s pretty bad when a dog outranks you,” said Staff Sgt. Adam Dye, 30, from Chattanoga, Tenn., laughing as he bent to pet Zeke. “I love dogs. He’s the mellowest dog ever.”
“I think dogs raise the morale for everyone around,” said Pfc. Tanner Neal, 21, from Sweet Home, Ore. “I’ve got five sitting at home waiting on me.”
Like other soldiers, Pfc. Christopher Sauber, 24, misses his dogs. He has five at home in Athens, Ohio. He said he appreciated Zeke’s visit.
“It helps you get away from this place,” Sauber said. “It’s relaxing, like a piece of home.”
Cheryl Hatch was a recent Snedden chair in the University of Alaska Fairbanks journalism department. She and photographer JR Ancheta, a UAF student, are embedded with a Stryker brigade unit in Afghanistan.