Troops in Afghanistan have good reason to find comfort in bomb-sniffing dogs. Their enemies fear the hulking shepherds and Malinois that escort soldiers on patrol. More importantly, the dogs find bombs.
Cpl. Daniel Feeman, a senior in SPA, who completed his Marine Corps service as kennel master for Marine One, sees an added benefit. To his mind, working with dogs, even under enemy attack, can later reduce the impact of combat stress injuries, the military’s new, less negatively charged term for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
It’s a theory that evolved from Feeman’s own experience on the canine unit, buttressed by the stories of other veterans grappling with combat stress.
Serve and Protect
Feeman began his military career as a disaffected, 19-year-old at a Seattle community college. He didn’t think he was learning much and wanted to go to Afghanistan and search out improvised explosive devices (IED’s) with military working dogs. So, on a Friday in January 2005, he enlisted in the marines.
That Sunday, he left home for boot camp.
The next few months were grueling: boot camp, followed by Marine Corps Combat Training and the military police academy, where he was selected to attend canine school at Lackland Air Force Base. At Lackland the canine kennel master for Marine Helicopter Squadron One (HMX-1) handpicked Feeman saying, “I like the cut of your jib.”
Rather than serving with the canine unit in Afghanistan, Feeman would join the White House military office, attached to Marine One security, traveling with the president and Secret Service, and supporting the State Department.
After being certified in Quantico, Virginia, where his military working dog was trained to pick up on enemy aggression and to detect explosives, Feeman traveled the world on security detail for President Bush, then President Obama.
It was a fantastic experience, he says. It was also stressful. Feeman was part of covering 47 bomb threats and bomb sweeps.
“Each time you do a bomb sweep or threat, you mentally prepare yourself before going in for an enemy that, A. you’re not going to see, and B. potentially will kill you. And you accept at a certain point that that’s your job, that’s your mission. That’s what you do.”
Feeman, whose older brother Jake served in Iraq, understands the range of sacrifices made by members of the military.
“I was given a mission by the Marine Corps because they needed my unique skill set . . . It’s a mission that needed to be done, and an important one.” He adds, “But it’s difficult to figure out why I got to go to Abu Dhabi, and stay in essentially a palace, a five star hotel, when guys [and friends] like Dustin Lee and Craig Ledsome didn’t get to come home.”
Soldier as Researcher
Feeman has buried plenty of friends and seen others come home to spiral into mental illness.
When the SPA student, who came to AU under the auspices of the Yellow Ribbon Program, took SIS professor Betsy Cohn's Introduction to International Relations Research course last spring, he saw a chance to delve into an idea that, anecdotally, he knew to be true. Those who had served on canine units in Iraq and Afghanistan, even those who’d seen fire, seemed better able to reacclimate without the specter of combat stress injury — a malady that is typified by symptoms ranging from sleeplessness and flashbacks to emotional numbness and suicidal tendencies.
Feeman had heard about studies among violent crime victims and ways that psychologists use dogs to layer positive associations within traumatic memories, to reduce PTSD. The Department of Defense’s (DOD) PTSD Taskforce was doing work to extend the process to a military model, perhaps refocusing combat memories on the working dogs that keep soldiers safe.
Feeman saw a chance to prove that canine working dogs reduce PTSD, and if supported in his hypothesis that dogs alleviate stress memories, find a lead for other researchers testing treatment methods that could help military personnel suffering from PTSD.
In Feeman’s course-related survey of veterans, when the question of PTSD came up, many of his subjects shut down.
“There is a stigma,” says Feeman. “Nobody wants to be labeled the guy who couldn’t handle it.”
But, among Feeman’s interviewees who did reveal combat stress injuries, even as they described the wartime event that triggered their trauma, they also spoke about lasting, positive memories of the dogs they worked with.
There was just something about the dogs that added a layer of emotional security, and there, Feeman believes could be a window for treatment.
Still, Feeman’s results were anecdotal, inconclusive. Most interviewees were unwilling to talk about their combat stress injury. He found statistical evidence elsewhere that those with the greatest likelihood of peril, like those on military crash fire rescue or canine bomb squads, happen to have the lowest incidence of combat stress injury. But does working with dogs reduce PTSD, or is there simply a type of soldier who doesn’t typically develop PTSD — one who volunteers for and thrives under fire, and who, often, happens to work with dogs?
Speaking with Bruce Shabazz, a member of the DOD PTSD Taskforce, Feeman learned that other researchers’ results corresponded with his own — the psychological benefit of working alongside dogs was unclear. In practice, the military use of the model had some benefit as compared with other treatment methods for PTSD, but it was not a slam dunk.
Feeman agreed with Shabazz that the key to further understanding would be narrowing the sample to those who worked 100 percent of the time with dogs. Honing in on the canine field though, would mean inadvertently self-selecting an extremely competitive field with personalities to match.
However, all of Feeman’s subjects said they felt better with the dogs present. “Not was better or thought I was better,” but that they felt better.
For some, that vague sense might be a first step away from the blackness of combat stress injury.
“We know so very little about the brain and how it works and whether or not it’s broken, and how to fix it when it is,” says Feeman. “Feeling is a huge step as far as mental health goes.”