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Army therapy dog visits maintenance Airmen

KANDAHAR AIRFIELD, Afghanistan (AFNS) -- Maintenance personnel got a surprise visit from a therapy dog as part of an effort to showcase the various mental health resources available at Kandahar Airfield, Afghanistan Feb. 2, 2019.

Air Force religious affairs Airmen from the 451st Air Expeditionary Group teamed up with an Army behavioral health team from Train Advise and Assist Command-South. They made their way through various shops within the 451st Expeditionary Aircraft Maintenance Squadron allowing Airmen and personnel to interact with Eden, an Army therapy dog.

Chaplains and religious affairs Airmen make routine visits across the installation to ensure Airmen and personnel understand the resources available for advice, counseling or friendly conversations. Individuals may come to chaplains with personal or professional concerns, but sometimes, elevating the situation to a more qualified medical professional is necessary.

“Certain issues need to be seen by professionals, so we do these rounds to establish a relationship with Airmen,” said Air Force Staff Sgt. Matthew Daniel, 451st AEG religious affairs Airman. “The whole intention is to have Airmen feel more comfortable going to an Army hospital for those deeper issues.”

Army Maj. Sal Bitondo, Behavioral Health officer in charge assigned to the NATO Role III MMU, said bringing a therapy dog with them often helps people feel more comfortable opening up, which in turn gives the behavioral health professionals an opportunity to talk about some of the resources they can provide.

“To be able to help service members is pretty special,” Bitondo said. “I can offer some help, but nothing says love like some fur therapy.”

Air Force Maj. Randy Croft, 451st AEG chaplain, said this joint effort gives them an opportunity to take better care of personnel by initiating relationships between Airmen and Soldiers.

“It’s about collaboration,” Croft said. “We’re stronger when we collaborate no matter what branch of service it is, and the more resources we showcase to our people, the better. We do a lot of unit engagement where we check the health and welfare of our Airmen so they can do their mission more effectively, but sometimes people are reserved.”

Air Force Master Sgt. Shannon Laucht, 104th Expeditionary Fighter Squadron admin superintendent, said Eden reminded her of the five dogs she owns back home.

“Please bring her by more often,” Laucht said. “We love dogs over here.”

Laucht and Bitondo took out their phones and began sharing dog photos and fond memories with their respective dogs while Eden waited, wagging her tail with excitement.

“Eden lightens up the mood and makes everybody feel so much better,” Bitondo said. “She’s an awesome icebreaker for us.”

Eden is more than a therapy dog—she’s a liaison of information between two sister services. She allows this team to share and open up in an engaging and light-hearted way. Mental health and personal problems can negatively impact people and the mission, so it’s vital for base personnel to understand that these resources are available, even across different branches.

“Since we’ve been doing this more often, it’s been reported some Airmen have begun using Army resources more frequently,” Daniel said. “It’s a great feeling to know that something as simple as bringing a dog with us could lead to such positive responses.”

The 451st Air Expeditionary Group is a geographically separated unit of the 455th Air Expeditionary Wing headquartered at Bagram Airfield, Afghanistan. As the Air Force’s premier counterterrorism wing in Afghanistan, the 455th AEW provides decisive airpower throughout the region and supports Operation Freedom’s Sentinel and NATO’s Resolute Support mission.

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