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Honoring Facility Dogs Across the Military Health System

Image of Honorary U.S. Air Force Maj. McAfee, a facility dog, bops the fist of U.S. Army Brig. Gen. Deydre Teyhen, then the commanding general, in acknowledgement of his commissioning order at Brooke Army Medical Center, at Fort Sam Houston, Texas, June 6, 2023. McAfee is BAMC’s second official facility dog and the first to be commissioned into the U.S. Air Force. His handler is U.S. Air Force Maj. (Dr.) Scott Penney, a pediatrician. System. (DOD photo: Jason W. Edwards). Honorary U.S. Air Force Maj. McAfee, a facility dog, bops the fist of U.S. Army Brig. Gen. Deydre Teyhen, then the commanding general, in acknowledgement of his commissioning order at Brooke Army Medical Center, at Fort Sam Houston, Texas, June 6, 2023. McAfee is BAMC’s second official facility dog and the first to be commissioned into the U.S. Air Force. His handler is U.S. Air Force Maj. (Dr.) Scott Penney, a pediatrician. (DOD photo: Jason W. Edwards)

McAfee, a Golden Retriever, recently joined the ranks of honorarily commissioned or enlisted military facility dogs. He’s part of a growing number of specially trained facility dogs who boost staff and patient mental health while reducing stress every day at hospitals and clinics across the Military Health System.

Mac, as he’s known, became an honorary U.S. Air Force major June 6, 2023. He is the first commissioned Air Force facility dog at Brooke Army Medical Center at Joint Base-San Antonio, Texas. As a U.S. Air Force commissioned officer, Mac wears a jacket that denotes his rank and service, as do many of the facility dogs across the MHS.

The value of facility dogs for mental health is increasingly recognized.

“McAfee's presence here is not only symbolic; it represents a profound transformation in the way we deliver health care,” said then-BAMC Commanding General U.S. Army Brig. Gen. Deydre Teyhen. “As we strive to bring joy back to medicine, Mac’s role becomes paramount.”

Facility dogs have been around the MHS for nearly two decades working full-time at their assigned locations with virtually free range to visit patients and staff. Their mission became even more critical during the COVID-19 pandemic as health care personnel faced high stress, compassion fatigue, and burnout caring for patients.

“The most important thing is to understand this is about the morale of our patients and staff and raising people's spirits,” said Amy O’Conner, facility dog program manager at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, Bethesda, Maryland.

Ceremonies and the Evolution of Service Vests

O’Conner and others in the facility dog community are working to create standard operating procedures for commissioning and enlistment.

For now, O’Connor responds to requests for commissioning and enlistment ceremonies with scripts tailored to each facility and service. She coaches the requestor through the process, offering templates for the ceremony’s invitations, and even party suggestions.

At Mac’s commissioning, U.S. Army Master Sgt. Eric McEllen, BAMC’s equal opportunity advisor, read the official orders, tailored from O’Connor’s script. The orders stated, in part: “Mac, effective with this commissioning, you are charged with the duty to comfort and cheer others and will direct and require all dogs of lesser grade to render obedience to appropriate orders … you are responsible for the smiles of humans and for the safety, professional development, and well-being of your handlers. You will bring joy and comfort to all that need you while observing and following the orders and directions of your dad, [U.S. Air Force] Maj. Scott Penney, as well as the BAMC facility dog handlers.”

“These ceremonies, which bring our Marines together, or our soldiers together, or our sailors together to experience this with us, it's just a beautiful way to bring joy to them,” O’Connor said. “And it's not hard, to do. People feel pride in the ranks when [the dogs] are commissioned.”

“We would never want to diminish an active-duty member’s status, or uniform or anything like that. It is all honorary for the betterment of our community,” O’Connor said.

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