ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) Alaskans know them as "The Guardian Angels" because of their many rescues here in the state's wilderness, but approximately 20 members of the Alaska National Guard 212th Rescue Squadron just returned from a five-month deployment to Afghanistan.
photo from AK Air National Guard
The unit's mission was to provide personnel rescue capabilities in their area of operation, according to Maj. Christian Braunlich, a combat rescue officer with the 212th.
The squadron had a special member during this deployment to help them cope with the stress of dangerous rescue missions, a PTSD service dog named TOML, which stands for "that others may live".
This was the first time a service dog deployed with the unit, fully integrated with the team, according the AK Air National Guard. "He's unique because he's the pilot program for the rescue squadron, if not the entire Air Force, where we're actually taking a service animal and making him a member of the team deploying him" said Maj. John Romspert.
TOML was trained by April Gettys, founder of the non-profit Midnight Sun Service Dogs in Eagle River. "It made all the difference in the world having him there (in Afghanistan)" Gettys said. "He didn't just help our guys. he helped everybody that was on that base that needed help. It's stressful and to have that little bit of home there when you deploy, it helped out a lot."
Gettys says TOML's story began with another soldier named Shea Porter, who was stationed at Joint Base Elmendorf/Richardson. "He was a young man, had a life, had a wife, had children and he was med boarded out of the Army for PTSD and committed suicide two weeks later" said Gettys. "His family reached out to us to see how they could help."
Gettys says Porter's family in Virginia bred a litter of chocolate lab puppies and gave five of them to her organization. Midnight Sun trained TOML and Gettys convinced commanders of the 212th Rescue Squadron to let the dog become a member of the team.
When the unit deployed to Afghanistan, TOML went with them.
"On a typical day he's a dog" said Maj. Romspert. "He's with the squadron, gets his ears rubbed and hangs out, but if he notices someone's having anxiety or something's going on, he'll actually alert to them where he'll come and put his paw on their leg, climb in their lap."
TOML's siblings are also helping out. His brother, Porter, helps military service members in the Anchorage area. "They just call me, check him out for the day, he goes with them, does his magic and then he comes back" Gettys said.
TOML's sister, Bessie, is undergoing training at JBER to become a military service dog.
Gettys says the service dogs can help military members cope with the emotional stress they face. "They can stay in the military and serve their country, which most of them, that's all they want to do, and all from having a four legged guy or four legged girl running around" Gettys said.
For more information about Midnight Sun Service Dogs click here.