By Danielle DeSimone
Even while Aspen was still a puppy, USO Mobile Operations & Programs Specialist Catherine Moore knew that her Bernese Mountain Dog was meant to be a therapy dog. Aspen had a calm, sweet temperament, making her a perfect pup for offering comfort and support to service members.
Moore quickly trained Aspen to be a certified therapy dog. Then, once Moore began working for USO Alaska, she began to bring Aspen along with her to briefings with base leadership – and here, she caught service members’ attention. Unit leaders and military chaplains quickly began reaching out to Moore, asking if Aspen could visit different units for a morale boost.
Alaska may not sound like a challenging location to be stationed, but with its extreme seasons, and remote duty stations, living and working as a service member in Alaska is not for the faint of heart. In fact, the loneliness and weather conditions of Alaska have actually led to an increased number of service member suicides, which is already an issue within the military community.
That is why the USO is such a crucial element of support for service members stationed in Alaska – and it is why any form of support, including therapy dogs, is so welcome.
“Especially the guys that are in the dorms or the barracks, they can’t have dogs, so they absolutely love [seeing Aspen],” Moore said. “I’ve had guys almost in tears as they just lay on the ground and pet her.”
Over the course of her three years as a therapy dog in Alaska, Aspen became incredibly popular. Not only did she boost morale by spending time with service members in the USO center, but she also visited them along the flight line, apparently unfazed by the roar of jets and other aircraft that passed through. In fact, Aspen became such a staple within the military community in Alaska that one service member even asked if Aspen could attend his award ceremony as his personal guest.
“I guess I didn’t realize how important it was until I got Aspen certified [as a therapy dog] and started bringing her out and seeing airmen and soldiers’ reactions to having her,” Moore said.
“They’ll just sit there for 30 minutes and just hug her and pet her … and they’ll walk away and say, ‘That literally just made my week.’ So, I didn’t realize how important it was until I did bring her out and realized how important dogs are to morale. And it brings something different than what USO already offers.”
The USO is committed to supporting all members of the military community and working hard to keep morale high, especially in challenging locations such as Alaska. Aspen and her human family have since moved to Colorado, where the Bernese Mountain Dog will have a chance to share her comforting presence with new military communities. But regardless of where they are, with the help of dogs like Aspen, service members are assured that they have some place – or someone – to turn to in times of need.
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