MCCONNELL AIR FORCE BASE, Kan. (AFNS) -- (This feature is part of the "Through Airmen's Eyes" series. These stories focus on individual Airmen, highlighting their Air Force story.)
A 22nd Operations Support Squadron officer at McConnell Air Force Base is training her dog, Valco, to help boost the morale of military members, veterans and their families.
Capt. Carmella Burruss, the 22nd OSS deputy chief of wing intelligence, has been training Valco, a 19-month-old Labrador-poodle mix, for six months to become a certified therapy dog.
Valco has already completed a basic obedience course, and is now working on his advanced obedience course. He’s on track to earn his official accreditation through Therapy Dog International.
The upbringing of Valco has been a family affair. Burruss' father, a former Army special operations forces deputy commander, raised Valco for about a year while Carmella was deployed.
Valco is named after a special operations K-9 and is carrying on that legacy of service. The original Valco was killed in combat in Iraq in 2005 while assigned to a unit that Burruss' father helped found in the 1970s.
"I think Cara's decision to train him and use him as a therapy dog is a wonderful tribute to his namesake," said retired Lt. Col. Lewis Burruss. "SOF working dogs, such as Valco's namesake, have been responsible for saving scores of lives. By naming other dogs after these K-9 heroes, we pay tribute to those K-9s killed in the line of duty."
Carmella is following in her father's military service footsteps and her dog Valco will likely do the same by helping military members. Once certified, the goal is for Valco to work in Veterans Affairs hospitals and base medical facilities, helping people with anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder.
"People who are struggling with emotional problems can benefit a lot from having a therapy animal come visit them," Carmella said. "A therapy dog helps improve healing. Being around animals helps lower your blood pressure, reduces stress and anxiety and brings everybody's moods up."
Carmella stepped up to serve her country after 9/11 because she felt her nation needed her. That self-sacrifice as a leader and wingman is the same reason she continues to serve her country and help veterans in need, her father said.
"That concept of service -- it's an extension of the reason I wanted to join the military," Carmella said. "While we are here working the current Air Force mission, we can give back to those that have given so much. If we can make one person smile, it's worth it."
Communication is important to the success of any military mission and it's just as important with a dog and handler partnership.
"It's a relationship and a conversation -- he needs to trust me when I give him a command," she said. "It's a team mentality. He looks to me sometimes for confidence, and I look to him to just be the big sweetheart that he is."
This trust is very important, especially because a portion of Valco's training involves learning how to deal with unfamiliar situations. Having confidence in his handler allows him to be graceful around people on crutches, be able to handle the noise of someone dropping a walker and being able to properly approach wheelchair-bound individuals.
Carmella has big plans for Valco's future. She hopes to eventually certify Valco as a search and rescue dog to help in disaster zones, and for him to spend time in nursing homes, rehabilitation facilities and working with young children.
"He can also be a reading therapy dog for children who have trouble reading," Carmella said. "(Children) can sit down and read to the dog and it boosts their confidence because they can connect with the animal and it's not another person making them nervous."
Carmella hopes the team will continue to help as many people as they can while spreading the word about the importance of therapy dogs and how they can boost morale within the veteran community.
"There's no way I'm not smiling when I walk around with him and see other people smile, it's infectious," she said. "Being able to just look over at him, and he'll just wag his goofy tail you think, 'none of this is really that bad, because I get to love this dog right now.'"