Although American Red Cross volunteers do come from all walks of life, it’s not every day that you see one walk on four legs.
At Camp Arifjan in Kuwait, a young German shepherd-husky mix wears the Red Cross name and emblem as he makes his rounds among members of the U.S. military.
Named Fursa Thaniya—meaning “second chance” in Arabic—he was found wandering the base and was brought to the veterinarian clinic. The Army Veterinarian Service Chief, Capt. Erika Stapp, and the vet tech, Christie Heiser, decided to take him in. Sadly, they say that he showed signs of abuse; he was underweight, his hair was matted and he had been shot twice with a pellet gun.
Despite his tough past, the staff and volunteers at the clinic saw Fursa’s potential and decided to create a pet therapy program with the American Red Cross.
Fursa, now about two years old, has gone through months of behavioral training to learn commands and recover from his fears. Stapp and Heiser worked diligently to train Fursa, along with the help of Hospital Corpsman 2nd Class Dan Polo and Carol Proxee, the former Red Cross station manager at Camp Arifjan.
In the daytime, Fursa stays in the vet clinic because of the normally high temperatures outside (100 F+). After sleeping during the hottest part of the day, Fursa then joins Katie Schafer, an American Red Cross employee, to work the overnight shift.
Schafer arrives early most nights, so she brings Fursa to the Red Cross office or walks him around the area so that more people can see or meet him. Schafer has also taken Fursa to softball and football games and often walks him around the food court areas—wherever he has the most opportunities to interact with service members.
Fursa is a great morale booster, Schafer says, because he is a reminder of home for many service members. “It is amazing how happy petting a dog can make people,” Schafer said. “In fact, every time I take him out I say how Fursa needs a Facebook page because he is easily the most popular creature on base.”
Pet therapy is widely thought to relieve stress, and for these service members who are far from home, the power of his puppy face can’t be overestimated.
“It is priceless seeing the service members’ reactions to him,” Schafer said. “Just the other day we went over to watch a football game and I brought Fursa. A man walked up to us and asked if he could pet him. Once he did, he said, ‘Now I can get through deployment...’”
Schafer and Fursa started out by going to Navy gear drops—where Navy personnel who are going home drop all their gear off before departing—and making weekly visits to the Resiliency Center, a hang-out spot run by the chaplains. Now their program has expanded to weekly hospital visits, and will soon include visits to the physical therapy program at the hospital.
Fursa has been requested to attend several events on base, including barbeques and unit training sessions. Schafer also makes Fursa the main attraction of all the Red Cross events, such as movie nights and holiday parties. Cleverly, she always puts Fursa’s picture on the event flyers to encourage service members to attend.
The pet therapy program will likely expand even more, because Fursa now has a canine companion. Recently, another puppy was found and brought to the vet clinic. A black border collie named Luka, he is about 18 months old and is currently in training to become the newest Red Cross therapy dog. Luka has already attended a few events on base and—no surprise—is quickly becoming just as popular as Fursa, Schafer said.
To see more pictures of Fursa and Luka, visit the American Red Cross on Flickr and the American Red Cross at Camp Arifjan Facebook page.