100th Anniversary of the U.S. Army Veterinary Corps

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The material I write for this blog is usually directed at companion animal owners who have one or more pets in their household. The purpose is to inform those pet owners of the many facets of providing for the health and well-being of their four-legged family members. However, today and in this article I digress. I have chosen to write about the 100th Anniversary of the United States Army Veterinary Corps, a small, select group of veterinarians and their support staff who provide a most essential and important function for our military forces world-wide. I hope you find it interesting as I recount some of the highlights of the past 100 years of the U.S. Army Veterinary Corps.

The history of United States military veterinary service started with the Revolutionary War when General George Washington directed the establishment of farriers, or people who placed iron shoes on horses, to serve in the regiments that utilized the horse as a mode of transportation, both of warriors and war supplies. Horses were the main source of moving artillery, ammunition, food rations, water and men from one point to another. These early veterinarians were not specifically trained in medicine; however, through vast experience with the horse they were the best the fledgling country had to offer for the well-being of the horse in battle. In 1834 the U.S. Government began to use the term “veterinary surgeon” interchangeably with “farrier.” From that point on in the history of the evolution of the military veterinarian, the common opinion was the military veterinarian/farrier was one of the toughest and most accomplished soldiers in all the Army. And that reputation of valor for veterinarians has carried on throughout all American wars.

In 1854, the first college of veterinary medicine in the United States was opened at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York. Others soon followed. At the opening of the Civil War in 1861 and during the first two years, the Union Army lost 284,000 horses primarily to disease. In those early years not a single veterinarian served in the Union Army. President Abraham Lincoln was deeply offended at this appalling mistreatment of these animals and immediately authorized a veterinary surgeon/farrier to serve as the supervisor of the animals. That person held the rank of Sergeant of the Calvary and earned a pay of $17.00 per month. By the spring of 1863, the Union Army employed a force totaling 4.7 million horses. As a result of tremendous animal losses and to obtain better qualified individuals, the United States Government enacted legislation that established one veterinary surgeon per regiment. These first veterinarians were given the Rank of Regimental Sergeant Major and earned $75.00 per month. During this time, the Confederate Army had 2.8 million horses; however, they were having a difficult time feeding these horses and resupplying new horses as the war moved along. Most of the Confederate Army’s losses of horses were due to non-battle injury, primarily due to a contagious disease that was communicable to man called glanders. In 1879, the Army put out a general order that required all veterinary surgeons in the cavalry be graduates of reputable veterinary colleges.

During the Spanish American War of 1898 there were 14 veterinary surgeons attending to the needs of ten cavalry regiments. It was near the end of that war that a political scandal occurred where untold numbers of soldiers were sickened and/or killed after eating adulterated beef. This incited the public to the extent they demanded greater safeguards to be put in place to prevent such disasters. The result of this uproar was the Army Reorganization Act of 1901 that established that a United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) veterinarian be appointed as Meat Inspector, Subsistence Department, of the United States Army. This was the beginning of the meat inspection function that veterinarians perform for all branches of the service all over the world.

As the unrest in Europe with the German Armies invading neighboring territories and World War I seemed inevitable, the United States Congress planned for the worst by creating the National Defense Act of 1916 which was signed by President Woodrow Wilson on June 3, 1916. This act bolstered the United States military in many ways, including the establishment of the United States Army Veterinary Corps. The members of the Corps have participated in every war in which the United States has become involved since World War I. The presence of the U.S. Army Veterinary Corps was evident in WW I, WW II, Korea, Viet Nam, the Cold War, Operation Just Cause in Panama, Operation Desert Shield in Kuwait, Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan, and Operation Iraqi Freedom/New Dawn/Islamic State which brings us up to today. This Centennial celebration is to highlight the service and value the Corps has provided to the nation over the past 100 years.

The Army Veterinary Corps currently has just over 800 personnel including 550 active-duty Veterinary Corps officers and 280 officers in the Army Reserve. All graduate veterinarians go into active duty as Captains or equivalent rank at this time. Almost all of the new active duty Captains either entered the military having received a three year scholarship that pays all fees, plus a monthly stipend; or they are eligible for loan repayment of up to $125,000.00 for a three year commitment to the Veterinary Corps. Supporting the veterinary officers are approximately 1,600 enlisted food inspection specialists. There are also about 560 animal care technicians and somewhere in the neighborhood of 425 civilians that work for the Corps world-wide. All included, there are about 3,400 members that constitute the U.S. Army Veterinary Service. Their mission is to provide highly skilled and adaptive veterinary professionals to protect and improve the health of people and animals while enhancing readiness throughout the Department of Defense. The Veterinary Corps accomplishes its mission by serving on Army, Air Force, Navy, and Marine Corps bases throughout the world supporting U.S military men and women. From host nation capacity-building operations in Central Africa to combat operations in the Middle East, the Veterinary Corps provides support to a variety of military efforts in the interest of national security.

The three pillars of Force Protection by the Veterinary Corps are: 1. Food Protection, 2. Research and 3. Animal Health. The pillars can be broken down further into the basic job descriptions of what those members are assigned in any given theatre. Today, the Army Veterinary Corps men and women support the Department of Defense missions at home and abroad in the areas of food safety, food security, animal health care, veterinary public health, bioterrorism and research and development. Whether in the sands of a war zone in the Middle East or on a Navy ship in the South China Seas, the Veterinary Corps team has responsibility for assuring the quality of food our military men and women consume. They perform Food and Water Risk-based Assessments when approved sources are not available or practical. They perform Commercial Sanitation Audits to insure quality assessment of food and purification of water. Veterinarians and their support staff manage food programs in both garrison and deployment situations. They are responsible for the supervision of receipt and storage inspection of food sources and supplies, with the added responsibility of managing customer complaints. Having been in the military before I attended veterinary college, I sincerely appreciate the quality and purity of the food and water I experienced both in the United States and while under deployment. Perhaps the most telling of all challenges of which I am familiar is during my time as the executive vice president of the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA), I was privileged to attend three conferences of the International Military Veterinary Symposia in Europe. I recall one U.S. Army veterinarian relating the difficult challenge of keeping meat and vegetables from spoiling in a mobile cooling unit with the outside air temperature at 120 degrees Fahrenheit and a sand storm blowing wildly for three days. Some challenge that only an American soldier could overcome!

Military officials believe that dogs are the most effective and cost-effective detection system helping the military to detect and locate explosives of all kinds. Veterinarians on many military bases across the globe operate animal hospitals for military working dogs as well as treating pets that are owned by military personnel assigned to the base. Veterinarians in the Veterinary Corps treat all military service dogs whether they are attack dogs, therapy dogs, detection dogs or search and rescue dogs. The epicenter of dog training and treatment are the facilities at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas. Veterinarians and support staff at Lackland breed and train dogs for the Department of Defense. Most of these dogs are purchased from breeders in Eastern Europe, and most are German Shepherds or Belgian Malinois. These breeds are best for attack and detection dogs; however, some agencies use other breeds for detection purposes. The Transportation Security Administration may use Labradors and other sporting dogs for detection purposes. The Navy might use smaller terrier type dogs because of the limited space found on Navy ships and Coast Guard vessels. The Military Working Dog Veterinary Service, part of the Army Veterinary Corps, not only treats dogs on the base, but also serves as the hub for veterinary care for all military working dogs, providing worldwide consulting and referral services. The Holland Military Working Dog Hospital built in 2008 is a state-of-the-art animal hospital that houses veterinary specialists in all disciplines from Board Certification in Surgery to Preventive Medicine and Laboratory Animal Medicine. Collectively, approximately one-third of Army Veterinary Corps veterinarians hold a Certificate of Specialty in one of the 23 Veterinary Specialty Colleges administered by the AVMA.

Research and Development within the U.S. Army Veterinary Corps entails many facets of research. One prime example with which I am familiar is the story about a couple who graduated from veterinary college together, married and joined the Army. They were deployed together to Central Africa where Lt. Col. Nancy Jaax was nearly exposed to the Ebola virus through a rip in her space suit glove. The Jaax family returned to the United States where Lt. Col. Nancy Jaax did extensive work with the Ebola virus in the Reston, Virginia government laboratory. Both Lt. Col. Jaax and her husband, Col. Gerald Jaax now are attached to the United States Army Medical Research Institute for Infectious Diseases (USAMRIID). Both do research at that institution in Maryland. Nancy Jaax is an author of the book, “The Hot Zone” which depicts the first knowledge and discovery of Ebola. The first woman installed into the U.S. Army Veterinary Corps was a California woman named Dr. Thais de Tienne. She enlisted in the Army in 1945 at the rank of 1st Lieutenant after practicing in a small animal hospital since graduating from veterinary college. Lt. de Tienne was instrumental in the development of dehydrated foods, particularly dehydrated egg products. There is always other research on battle injuries, mental health including PTSD at facilities such as Walter Reed Hospital and Brooke Army Medical Center.

Earlier, I mentioned the International Military Veterinary Symposia (IMVS) that are held each year in a location that will attract military veterinarians from all across the globe. I have been honored to attend and participate in three of these events, where veterinary leaders from dozens of countries gather to share experiences and various strategies for coping with all the elements of supporting a military force in the heat of battle. It was certainly a learning experience for me, as well as those who were there as representatives of their respective countries and the support they provide their military in these fields of veterinary expertise. Most of the Chief Officers of the many countries represented at these meetings were the rank of General. The Officer Personnel Act of 1947 raised the rank of Chief of the U.S. Army Veterinary Corps to the rank of Brigadier General. However, in 1990 due to fiscal constraints, the Corps lost that rank of General and the leader of the Corps held the rank of Colonel. This left the highest ranking American officer subordinate to the Generals of most all of the other participating attendees at this and many other meetings and strategy sessions. So, in 2004, with the help of the AVMA and a prominent veterinarian from the State of Nevada, Dr. James E. Nave, who was able to solicit the support of Senator Harry Reid (D-Nev) who was successful in restoring the rank of Brigadier General to the Chief of the U.S. Army Veterinary Corps. That stands today as there have been four Brigadier Generals since the reinstatement of the General rank in 2004. Brig. Gen. (Ret.) John Poppe, who retired as Chief of the U.S. Veterinary Corps in February 2016 states, “I had the great honor and privilege to serve in the U.S. Army Veterinary Corps for more than 28 years and it is perhaps the greatest veterinary organization in the world with more than two hundred of its 800 plus veterinarians being board certified specialists serving in areas from research and development to hostile environments. I would do it all again if given the chance.”

On June 3, 2016 the U.S. Army Veterinary Corps held a centennial celebration of the 100 years of service of the Corps by dedicating a bronze statue at the U.S. Army Medical Department Museum at Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio, Texas. The statue, created by local San Antonio artist Donna Dobberfuhl, features four Army veterinarians, each engaged in a veterinary service at a particular time in Veterinary Corps history. The exhibit displays a veterinarian in a World War I Army uniform standing with a horse, a wounded military dog lying on a stretcher being treated by a modern-day veterinarian while the dog’s handler comforts the dog, a veterinarian from the Cold War era inspecting crates of military rations and a female veterinarian depicting the time of the Vietnam War sits at a field desk observing material through a microscope on a glass slide. It is an awesome statue, with 100 years of military service by patriotic American veterinarians bringing home the message of the commitment and dedication of these veterinarians through history. The statue is a must see if you live in the San Antonio area or are traveling there for other events.

“Through veterinary medical care, public health, food protection, and a focus on research and development activities, the U.S. Army Veterinary Corps will remain dedicated to saving lives and enhancing the readiness of U.S. military forces.” stated Brig. Gen. Erik Torring, the current Chief of the U.S. Army Veterinary Corps.

A portion of the history of the U.S. Army Veterinary Corps came from a presentation given by Brig. Gen. (Ret.)
John Poppe at the American Association of Senior Veterinarians Annual General Membership meeting on August 8, 2016 in San Antonio, Texas.

A portion of the statistical accounting of the U.S. Army Veterinary Corps came from an article in the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association, June 1, 2016 written by R. Scott Nolan, Senior News Editor.

A portion of the Lackland Air Force Base Military Dog Training Center came from an article in the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association, June 1, 2016 written by Katie Burns, Senior News Editor.

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