Army Veterinary Corps: 97 years protecting Soldiers and animals

Story by Jacqueline M. Hames, Soldiers Live
U.S. Army veterinary personnel prepare a horse for possible surgery on a tilt table at the 23rd Veterinary Station Hospital, Fort Bless, Texas, in 1944. (U.S. Army Veterinary Corps photo)

U.S. Army veterinary personnel prepare a horse for possible surgery on a tilt table at the 23rd Veterinary Station Hospital, Fort Bless, Texas, in 1944. (U.S. Army Veterinary Corps photo)

Napoleon Bonaparte famously said that an army marches on its stomach. If troops cannot be fed, they cannot fight. To this day, cutting off supply routes is an effective way of delaying or neutralizing opposing forces. But even if supplies get through there is always a chance of contamination or food-borne illness, which necessitates a thorough inspection of meats, poultry and dairy products. The Army’s Veterinary Corps provides these inspections. Surprised?

Strong academic backgrounds in microbiology, epidemiology, pathology and public health have made veterinarians ideally suited for ensuring the quality of food since the 1890s.

On June 3, the Veterinary Corps will turn 97 years old, expertly providing all of the Department of Defense’s veterinary service needs for nearly a century.

A catastrophic problem with food quality during the Spanish-American War was pivotal in leading to the establishment of the Veterinary Corps, because Americans demanded something be done to prevent such things in the future.

“There were all kinds of different food problems,” Brig. Gen. John Poppe, chief of the U.S. Army Veterinary Corps, said. Out of those problems came the Dodge Commission, which examined issues of food quality control.

Then, on June 3, 1916, the National Defense Authorization Act stood up the U.S. Army Veterinary Corps. The corps, which falls under the Army Medical Command, is a key component to Army medicine.

“We typically don’t work in hospitals or medical treatment facilities, so it is kind of a unique piece of Army medicine. But I think the important part is that we are so integrated within Army medicine that it really makes us effective out there,” Poppe explained. “And I think for us, (that is) part of our history, and since 1916 our scope of practice has really evolved.”

The Veterinary Corps has three primary missions today: veterinary medicine, food inspection and defense, and research and development.

It is the executive agent for veterinary services, which means that the Army provides all veterinarians across all branches of the military.

Vet Corps personnel usually start their careers stateside, Poppe said, and then deploy overseas before they begin to specialize in a specific area of veterinary medicine, which spans from clinical specialists to critical care, and now, behavioral medicine.

During World War I the Vet Corps’ primary mission was taking care of horses, as they were the major means of transportation at the time, Poppe explained. At the beginning of the war, there were 72 veterinary officers and no enlisted men, but within 18 months that grew to 2,312 officers and more than 16,000 enlisted personnel. By October of 1918, they were caring for more than 165,000 horses and mules. The veterinarians also performed meat inspection during the war.

Today, the Vet Corps still cares for the miscellaneous horses throughout the different forces, like the caisson horses on Fort Myer, Va., but the main focus of their efforts is military working dogs.

“We also take care of people’s pets as well, what we call privately owned animals, and so anybody who is active duty or retired that has an ID card has access to our veterinary treatment facilities on our installations across the Department of Defense,” Poppe said.

Capt. Amos Peterson, veterinarian and Poppe’s executive aide, grew up on a horse and cattle ranch where veterinarians were critically important to his family’s livelihood and everyday lives. Peterson joined the Army five years ago with a degree in veterinary medicine. After a two-year period at his initial assignment on Andrews Air Force Base, Md., he deployed to the Horn of Africa in support of Operation Enduring Freedom.

“I was stationed in Djibouti, worked there in Kenya, Tanzania and Ethiopia, providing the food safety and defense mission for that entire theater,” Peterson said. “I also took care of all the working dogs that were deployed to that AO (area of operation). We did a couple of different civil affairs missions, and we did some international animal health care training.”

Peterson had the chance to work with exotic animals while he was deployed to Africa. He volunteered at a civilian cheetah refuge in Djibouti and had the opportunity to work with mongooses.

“But, in my opinion, the most gratifying and interesting animal experience that I had was (with) the Marine Corps mascot, Chesty,” Peterson said. When Chesty XIII was a puppy in 2009, he chewed up and ate a softball. The handler noticed Chesty wasn’t eating one weekend and brought him in to be examined. Peterson found a “full occlusion” made of pieces of a softball and had to remove 18-20 inches of bowel.

“He wanted to eat dinner that night!” Peterson said, laughing. “He made a full recovery, no complications. He’s been a hard charger ever since. He was a great patient, but it was just kind of stressful to know that you had this patient’s life in your hands and if you didn’t (succeed) the commandant of the Marine Corps was going to be very, very upset.”

One of Peterson’s favorite things about the Vet Corps is the diversity of opportunities and positions — veterinarians have the opportunity to get out of a clinic and step away from working with small animals if they so choose. The vets do many things the public doesn’t expect and are stationed in unexpected branches of the government, like the Central Intelligence Agency, he said. Veterinary staff advisors play key roles in chemical and biological defense as well.

“I also like the chance, the opportunity to serve this great nation. It means a lot to me to be able to wear this uniform every day, and a lot of the people that I work with are just stellar Americans and patriots,” Peterson continued.

In addition to veterinary medicine and food safety inspections, the Vet Corps performs food defense missions. “That’s when we think about intentional contamination of food,” Poppe said, which essentially looks at how to protect installations and facilities from people who may want to harm the U.S. with contaminated food or water.

Lastly, the Vet Corps takes care of a big piece of DOD medical research and development. Some special areas of interest include vaccines, antitoxins and antidote development directed to the protection of military personnel.

Because Army veterinarians are assigned to installations all across the world supporting all branches of service, Poppe’s goal for the future is to better develop young officers to serve in a joint environment.

“The program that we’ve just stood up over the last couple of year is … the First Year Graduate Veterinary Education Program,” Poppe said, which is a one-year internship. New veterinary officers attend a basic officer leadership course with fellow officers from throughout the Army medical community. Afterward, the Soldiers spend another five weeks in a veterinary course before being given their first assignments.

Being a brand new officer is challenging enough without having the added complication of being the only Army officer stationed on a non-Army installation. Poppe hopes the internship will help Soldiers obtain the knowledge and confidence needed to hold their own at their first assignments.

“I think the Army is definitely transitioning into a period of really focusing on officer development and how the Army (can do) that better,” Peterson said, though he doesn’t believe the primary missions of the Vet Corps will change much in the future. Veterinarians will still have to inspect food and make sure it is safe and care for the highly valued military working dogs.

Today’s Vet Corps spans both active duty and the Reserves, and, according to Peterson, as long as the military endures, it will remain essential to food safety and security, animal care, veterinary public health and research and development.

“They’re not just going to get rid of veterinarians en masse because they need us.”

Editor’s note: All historical information comes from the U.S. Army Veterinary Corps website at http://veterinarycorps.amedd.army.mil/history.htm.

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