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A Sailor's Best Friend

20 July 2022

From Petty Officer 3rd Class Novalee Manzella, USS George H. W. Bush (CVN 77) Public Affairs

NORFOLK, Va. - Wagging tails and smiling faces are filling the hangar bays of the Nimitz-class aircraft carrier USS George H.W. Bush (CVN 77) once a week throughout the month of July as the ship prepares for an upcoming deployment. The canines are welcome visitors to the ship increasing morale, joy, connectedness, and toughness while decreasing stress for Sailors as the ship wraps up preparations for deployment.

The visits are the results of strategic partnerships developed and collaboration between the ship, Avenger family members, Mutts with a Mission, Crisis Response Canines, and the USO of Hampton Roads and Central Virginia.

“A lot of people already sent their dogs to other places in preparation for deployment,” said Lt. Sarah Faber, assistant air operations officer for George H.W. Bush and a key organizer of the program. “You don’t always realize the place that your animal holds in your life. They have an incredible impact on life and stress management because of the unconditional love they give.”

The partnerships began with an idea from a military spouse, led to discussions with a constellation of organizations inside-and-outside ship, and ended with puppies in the arms of Sailors in the hangar bay. The success of the concept is already driving interest at other commands in the region who began requesting visits from the dogs and volunteers as well. The spark of ingenuity and drive toward an achievable, worthy goal collaboratively is an example of how each Sailor or family member of a ship plays a significant role in creating the environment they want to serve and work within.

Much like the Avenger crew reflects the best elements of team – the whole of the diverse group of Sailors is greater than the sum of its parts - the ship's collaborative partnerships with community partners, its Family Readiness Group, and Ombudsmen deliver incredible value to the crew who will deploy as the warriors, leaders, teachers, and ambassadors of America.

And it is isn’t just the ship’s Sailors and leadership team that are taking notice of the impact the furry friends have on the crew.

“It has been a great experience getting to watch the canines strengthen the moral, well-being and mental health of the Sailors on the USS George H. W. Bush,” said Emily Ramsey, an operations specialist with the USO of Hampton Roads and Central Virginia. “Seeing a Sailor come up to the group of dogs with the joy and comfort on their faces is like no other. What is even better is when the Sailors sit down, get comfortable and really connect with the dogs. It gives them a sense of home.”

The extension of the program beyond a single-day event is particularly beneficial to the crew. In just a short time, Sailors built bonds with the puppies who came a week earlier, which is helping them connect and express emotions in a way they cannot otherwise, which opens doors of dialogue and connection between shipmates. It helps forge relationships between Sailors, Avenger family members, and the organizations involved for future collaboration after deployment.

“After the first couple of discussions, I was encouraged that we were moving forward, but I was concerned that we weren’t going to have enough dogs to support what we were looking to do for the crew,” said Jen Pollard who helped to spearhead the effort. “But as we continued to press forward and support began to develop organically, it really took off. The opportunities for long term relationships between our Sailors and their families and these organizations and the faces of the Sailors as they meet the dogs each week make it all worth it.”

And while the dogs won’t deploy with the ship, the memories and photos from their visits, along with updates from their handlers on where they are at in their training program, will provide continued connection. In fact, Mutts with a Mission has five puppies – three boys and two girls – that they plan to name based on their experience with the ship and its crew. Sailors aboard the ship already began pitching name ideas for the boys such as Sully, Crew, Avenger, CAVU, Freedom, Sailor, Light, Aviator, and Poppy, and Pearl, Liberty, and Robin for the girls.

In addition to the joy and stress relief that comes through playing with the puppies, many of the volunteers and staff from the organizations supporting these events are also veterans including retired nurses, psychologists, and other highly-trained professionals. This adds additional weight and depth to the experience, and also allows Sailors and veterans to work hand-in-hand to deliberately develop a positive culture and psychological safety aboard the ship – trust being the most important output and beating heart of any team.

After visiting with Sailors on the ship, many of the dogs will continue training and continue a life in service and companionship with as specially trained service and/or assistance dogs to qualified veterans, law enforcement officers, and first responders. For example, Brooke Corson founded Mutts with a Mission in 2008 after witnessing the positive impact dogs provided to the troops returning from overseas deployments. During her time working at Fort Benning, she was inspired by watching her dog Angus interact with the troops, and it was clear to her that dogs held the power to heal invisible wounds. The organization placed its first service dog in 2008 and continues to help alleviate the burdens of mobility disabilities and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) today. Renice Zimmerman with Crisis Response Canines and two additional therapy canines joined the visits to further harness the power of the human-canine bond. Their mission is to inspire resiliency and recovery in people affected by crisis, trauma or disaster.

Of course, the ship’s namesake President George H.W. Bush was no stranger to man’s best friend. While in office President and Mrs. Bush had a Springer Spaniel named Millie who had puppies, one named Spot who eventually lived in the White House as President George W. Bush’s dog. Most recently, President Bush’s service dog – a Labrador retriever named Sully – was with him for the last six months of his life. Sully received wide attention for the way he laid by President’s casket at the state funeral honoring Bush’s life of service to his family and the country. Sully continued serving after the President’s death at the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center’s Facility Dog Program where he “will visit injured veterans helping to provide comfort during rehabilitation center sessions and visit with families during what can be an emotional and very difficult time.”

One thing is for certain, these dogs are proving week-after-week that they are a Sailor’s best friend.

George H.W. Bush provides the national command authority flexible, tailorable warfighting capability as the flagship of a carrier strike group that maintains maritime stability and security to ensure access, deter aggression and defend U.S., allied and partner interests. For more information about the ship you can visit its Facebook, LinkedIn, Instagram, or official webpage. For more information about George H.W. Bush Carrier Strike Group you can visit its official website, Facebook, or LinkedIn page.


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