Journey to becoming Army Fit

Join us as two behavioral health therapists train to become mentally and physically “Army Fit.”

I am Tracy Keating Ward and I am Courtney Lynch.

Hi! I am Tracy Keating Ward and I am Courtney Lynch.  We are Psychological Health Coordinators (PHCs) for the State of Texas and we are located at the beautiful Camp Mabry in Austin, Texas.

Being therapists, we have spent a good portion of our lives learning the ins and outs of mental / emotional fitness.  However, due to busy lives and a deep desire to help others, we have found ourselves failing at being physically fit.  This has a lot to do with sitting for long hours in a chair, as therapists sometimes do, driving long hours commuting (traffic, traffic, traffic), and not prioritizing any type of regular exercise routine.  This level of poor fitness does not just appear suddenly. It creeps up day after day until you realize you now get winded going up a flight of stairs.  UGH. 

Working in a military setting and being surrounded by a large number of fit people really opens your eyes to evaluate your own fitness level.  Seeing service members running in the morning, during lunch and after work (no matter the temperature) makes you reflect on your own lack of commitment to exercising.  We have decided that we want to be role models and be both mentally fit and physically fit.

How do we do this? In talking to service members, we learn that taking a PT test every six months is a big motivator in their staying fit. So we decided to challenge ourselves to see if we could pass a PT test on March 23, 2015. Please note that we said we want to PASS the test, not EXCEED.  Passing means getting a score of 60 percent on each of the three skill sets: two-mile run, pushups, and sit-ups. 

Tracy:  That means for me, who is a 52 year-old female, I have to do nine pushups in two minutes, 28 sit-ups in two minutes and run two miles in 24 minutes and 24 seconds.  

Courtney:  And for me, at age 43, I have to do 12 pushups, 32 sit-ups and a 2-mile run in 23 minutes and 42 seconds.

We’ve begun to talk to others about our goals. Service members we have talked to have been encouraging, respectful, and did not die laughing when they heard how few pushups we had to do.  (Just like a service member to always be respectful). 

We have committed to blogging weekly about our progress.  If you are so inclined to join our fitness mission, or just want to follow our progress, please do.  If you are a civilian employee, contractor, or family member, and want to join us in becoming “Army Fit,” go to usarmybasic.com to find the standards for your age and gender. Remember, if you just want to pass like us, look at the numbers that fall in the 60 percent column.  Also, if there is a medical reason you cannot run, you are allowed to walk (a very fast walk), swim 800 meters, or bike 6 miles.  

Every journey starts with the first step.

Governor brevets Texas ANG officer to General, first female

Story by: 2nd Lt. Phil Fountain

Post: Jan 23, 2015

149th Fighter Wing Public Affairs
 
BG McNabbAUSTIN, Texas (Jan. 23, 2015) – In one of his last official acts, former Gov. Rick Perry commissioned the first female Texas Air National Guard officer as a brevet brigadier general, in Austin, Texas, effective Dec. 31, 2014.
 
Retired Col. Constance C. McNabb of Montgomery, Texas was presented with the general officer commission by Maj. Gen. Kenneth W. Wisian, Deputy Adjutant General for Air and Commander of the Texas Air National Guard, in a ceremony at Camp Mabry, in Austin, Texas, Jan. 23, 2015.

“This is a real thrill to recognize Connie with the brevet brigadier general,” said Wisian. “This is overdue recognition for under-heralded work.”

McNabb retired after more than 23 years of service as a member of the U.S. Air Force, Nebraska Air National Guard and Texas Air National Guard.
 
She was first commissioned as a captain in the U.S. Air Force’s Biomedical Science Corps. A “Citizen-Airman,” McNabb is also a Texas licensed, graduate veterinarian.

McNabb served a varied military career that included service as commander of the 149th Medical Group, a subordinate unit of the 149th Fighter Wing, based at Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland, Texas, TXMF Joint Surgeon then Chief of the Joint Staff for the Texas Military Forces, at Camp Mabry.

Her career culminated with her service as the Air National Guard Assistant to the Surgeon General at Headquarters, 25th Air Force at JBSA-Lackland.

“I look forward to seeing you around here more in the future and continuing to be a mover and shaker within Texas,” Wisian said. “Hopefully, broader than just within the Texas Military Forces.”

The Texas Government Code authorizes the governor, upon recommendation of the adjutant general, to confer a brevet commission “for gallant conduct or meritorious military service.” The code allows for the governor to commission the officer to the next higher grade.

In McNabb’s case, she was promoted from the rank of colonel to brigadier general in the National Guard of the State of Texas.

The military brevet is a significant state honor that's been bestowed upon only a few members of the Guard.

During his time in office, Perry issued only six brevets to active service members, according to the Texas Military Forces General Officer Management Office. McNabb is the first female from the Texas Air Guard.

The significance of her service was described in her recommendation for this honor.

“Colonel Constance C. McNabb distinguished herself by exceptionally meritorious performance of duty in a succession of positions of increasing responsibility,” wrote Maj. Gen. John F. Nichols, the 51st Adjutant General of Texas, to the governor in his recommendation. “In each duty assignment, Colonel McNabb’s exceptional leadership skills, personal and professional relationships and dedication to mission accomplishment were apparent throughout her military career in the Texas Air National Guard.”

McNabb expressed humility to receive this honor.

“This is far more than I ever expected,” she said. “[It’s] an honor I never expected and for which I am most grateful.”

“Humbled, thankful and appreciating the leadership of Gov. Rick Perry, Maj. Gen. John Nichols and Maj. Gen. Kenneth Wisian,” McNabb said after receiving the commission.

Brevet Brig. Gen. McNabb is not resting on her laurels.

She said she is looking forward to continuing her service to the state of Texas as a member of the Texas State Guard, the volunteer component of the Texas Military Forces.

Additionally, McNabb said she is excited to be enrolled in a graduate program at Texas A&M University’s Bush School of Government and Public Service, where she is seeking a graduate certificate in non-profit management.

She said she’s not sure what else the future might bring, but she will seek opportunities to serve Texas and her fellow veterans.

“It’s been a wonderful ride,” McNabb said. “And I look forward to the opportunity to continuing to serve the Texas Military Forces.”

National Guard helicopters support Border Patrol

Photo: UH-72 Lakota helicopter
A National Guard UH-72 Lakota helicopter prepares to fly in support of Customs and Border Protection (CBP)-led Operation Phalanx. National Guardsmen from across the country assist CBP in disrupting transnational criminal organizations and drug trafficking organizations by conducting aerial detection and monitoring along the U.S.-Mexico border in support of Operation Phalanx and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. (U.S. Army National Guard photo by Staff Sgt. Malcolm McClendon/Released)

LAREDO, Texas - Army National Guard members have served along the U.S.-Mexico border in south Texas since 2012 providing aviation support to U.S. Customs and Border Protection, with plans to continue serving for the foreseeable future.

Soldiers, from numerous states across the country, collaborate in this unique mission, known as Operation Phalanx, to provide aviation assets in support of CBP alongside Office of Air and Marine, Texas Department of Public Safety, U.S. Department of Homeland Security and other local, state and federal agencies with operations along the international border. They are prepared to fly their UH-72 Lakota helicopters regardless of day or time, ready to deploy as requested by CBP. 

“These UH-72 helicopters, which are bought and paid for by our taxpayers, are the perfect platform to perform this mission,” said Brig. Gen. Patrick Hamilton, Domestic Operations commander, Texas National Guard. “They provide a tremendous operational flying experience for future state and federal missions.”

The standard crew consists of three Guardsmen, two pilots and a sensor operator, and one Border Patrol agent observer per aircraft. The ability to combine the agent with the advanced UH-72 helicopter helps provide effortless support to border patrol agents working on the ground. 

“This aircraft’s capabilities make it a unique asset in the Army aviation inventory and perfect for this mission,” said a pilot with the Texas National Guard, who has been on the mission for six months. “It has a communications package that none of the other Army aircraft have that allows us to communicate on secure Border Patrol and other law enforcement channels. This communication capability, along with a high-powered searchlight and cameras with infrared capabilities, make it the total package.”

On any given flight, these aircrews can support CBP and other agencies with the identification and observation of undocumented immigrants, the seizure of illegal narcotics, and in emergency situations, conduct search and rescue operations and casualty evacuation. They also assist law enforcement in vehicle pursuits in order to prevent dangerous high-speed pursuits in populated areas. 

“The amount of assistance is invaluable,” said assistant chief patrol agent Dan Ramos. “They have provided us an extra level of safety.”

The partnership helps strengthen the relationship between both agencies.

“We are proud to work with National Guardsmen across the nation to support Customs and Border Protection,” said Hamilton. “We have a great relationship with all of our partner agencies on the border, making Operation Phalanx the perfect mission for National Guard soldiers.”

While providing an invaluable asset to CBP, the soldiers assigned to Operation Phalanx also benefit in their military and professional careers while on mission. Pilots, sensor operators, maintenance personnel and operations support personnel gain valuable experience in the demanding and constantly changing environment on the international border, making them invaluable assets at their home units when they return to their respective states. 

“Pilots gain unprecedented flight hours flying relevant missions every day, sensor operators rapidly adapt and learn how to maximize the capabilities of our cameras to assist CBP, maintenance personnel become experienced at inspections most states wouldn’t see for years to come, and flight operations personnel successfully manage relationships with numerous agencies and accountability for flight crews,” said a Nebraska National Guard soldier, who has been on this mission for more than a year. “It’s a fantastic opportunity for soldiers to serve on a domestic mission with important implications, working alongside their counterparts from other states.”

Additionally, the soldiers are also proud to serve in positions that allow them to support the integrity of their country and its borders on a daily basis. 

“This mission is incredibly rewarding, because we know we’re making an important difference, specifically to the Border Patrol agents on the ground, but also to our country as a whole,” said the guardsman. “When we signed up to join the National Guard we wanted to make a positive impact on our country and in our communities, and this mission allows us to do that every day.”

The National Guard has provided support along the U.S.-Mexico border in various ways and on numerous occasions since 1917, most recently providing constant support to CBP since 2010. From 2010 to 2012, the National Guard provided CBP ground support, switching to an aviation based mission in 2012.

Strengthening Your Mental Fitness

Commentary by TXARNG Counselors Renee Senn, LCSW and Tracy K. Ward, LPC

"I am disciplined, physically and mentally tough, trained
and proficient in my warrior tasks and drills."

Excerpt from Soldier's Creed

After the holidays most of us find ourselves with some additional weight and tighter clothes... two "signs" that our physical body needs a little tune-up and a little extra attention. An important aspect of being a service member is to maintain a level of physical fitness and a readiness to serve. Knowing you have Army physical standards and a PT test increases your awareness of your body and physical fitness level.

The Soldier's Creed emphasizes that soldiers maintain not only their physical toughness to serve but also their mental toughness as well. How do soldiers measure their mental toughness or know when it needs some attention?

I am disciplined, physically and mentally tough, trained  and proficient in my warrior tasks and drills.

A mental fitness tune up is needed when you BEGIN to:

  • lose sight of Army values
  • pull away from  family and  friends  
  • smile less 
  • laugh less 
  • drink more alcohol 
  • smoke or increase smoking
  • use illegal substances
  • have more arguments with those you love  
  • no longer engage in activities you enjoy
  • skip family events 
  • sleep more or sleep less
  • have mean thoughts toward yourself or others
  • hold grudges 
  • feel an increase in sadness, anxiety, boredom or anger
  • no longer engage in spiritual practices like attending worship services, praying, etc. 

When you notice your physical body is beginning to be out of shape it is wise to make changes early. For example, making changes when the waist band is too tight, versus waiting to react when all your clothes no longer fit.  The quicker you recognize the signs, create an action plan and make changes, the smoother and easier the process. This is also true for your mental toughness.  Pay attention to the early signs.  Notice when you BEGIN to lose sight of your Army values.  Knowing your personal signs, creating a plan of action, and engaging in the plan will create quick changes to your mental fitness and decrease the chance of a crisis.  

It is important to create a plan of action with lists of people, places and activities that mentally strengthen you and uphold Army values.  Choose people who will tell you the truth, listen with compassion, advise you, and will help you get back on track. Choose from a combination of your friends, family members, Battle Buddies, a chaplain, a therapist or anyone who you trust and believe will have your best interests at heart.  This does not include mischievous friends.  Mischievous friends may be fun to be with but can lead to trouble and they may not honor Army values.
 
A plan should also include places and activities that replenish, strengthen and build resilience. Participate in activities that make you smile, laugh, move, talk, and engage with good people.  All of these activities may strengthen mental fitness.  This plan does not include long hours of video games, stressful movies and social media (each of which is shown to increase stress and anxiety). 

Just as you must exercise at least 3x a week to keep up your physical fitness, you will need to make an effort to use your mental fitness plan 3x a week.  That means having personal contact with good people, engaging in activities that you enjoy and going to places that increase your level of relaxation.  Continuing to do this weekly will help your mental fitness and will reward you with a level of mental toughness that will serve you well in and out of battle. 

Tracy K. Ward,  Renee Senn and Courtney Lynch are counselors located at Camp Mabry and  have made a commitment to honor and accept the physical and mental standards of the Army.  At this moment they aren't willing to post their physical fitness status so watch for quarterly updates on their progress.  If you need help creating a mental fitness plan or have helpful advice regarding their physical fitness progress, please contact them in Bldg 34 or at 512-782-6791. 

Guardsmen demonstrate new side of chemistry for students

 

Story by: Master Sgt. Daniel Griego

Posted: 15-Jan-15

Photo of Soldier and students
Master Sgt. Daniel Griego
Members of the Texas National Guard's 6th Civil Support Team provide demonstrations of their procedures and equipment for chemistry students from Hill Country Christian School of Austin at Camp Mabry Jan. 15, 2015. The intent of the visit was to provide high school students with real-world applications of chemistry in the areas of emergency response and special operations. (U.S. Army National Guard photo by Master Sgt. Daniel Griego/Released)

AUSTIN, Texas – For the members of the Texas National Guard’s 6th Civil Support Team, community outreach is a regular part of their mission. From showcasing their capabilities at the Texas Emergency Management Conference each year to setting up a fundraising booth at the Camp Mabry American Heroes Air Show, they have a long history of meeting their neighbors while serving the state. Recently, they made a new connection in the area by inviting chemistry students from a local high school to tour their facility and learn about the real-world applications of science in responding to hazardous material incidents.

“We’re providing an opportunity that we don’t often get, to interact with high school students, more importantly, high school chemistry students,” said Lt. Col. William Phillips, commander of the 6th CST. “Hopefully, they’re going to understand that chemistry is more than just a subject by seeing the professionals who they’ve have the opportunity to interact with today who apply chemistry on a daily basis.”

The event, held Jan. 15 at the CST’s headquarters on Camp Mabry in Austin, Texas, allowed students from Hill Country Christian School of Austin to learn about hazardous compounds, try on chemical suits, and simulate testing procedures used by the CST during response operations. 

“It has made me a lot more interested,” said 10th-grader Stephen Fritschle, “seeing how they do this stuff in real life and how it applies to real life. It’s actually given me a greater interest for chemistry in general and how cool it can actually be.”

The day was as much about demonstrating the value of a strong science background as it was communicating the mission of the unit. The CST, first organized in 1999, serves the state of Texas by supporting local first responders with detection, identification, and monitoring capabilities when an area is compromised by hazardous chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear, or explosive contaminants. 

“There is another side of special operations that is highly trained and very specialized,” said Phillips, “and something that is not a traditional military unit’s task and purpose. That’s what the CST is, that’s what the CBRNE response enterprise is.These are Soldiers who have a very in-depth education requirement that they have to apply in hazardous environments and working in the unknown.”

Education was a recurring theme of the visit, as the Guardsmen of the CST imparted to the students the importance of academics and training in their career field. 

“One of the things that is challenging as a chemistry student is understanding how the concepts that you learn in the classroom are related to real-world experience,” said Meredith Wermel, the Hill Country Christian School of Austin chemistry teacher. “So getting them to actually be able to see how some of the compounds that they’re learning about in class could be analyzed by instruments and then actually be contained is a great opportunity.”

The members of the CST were especially enthusiastic about the chance to share their mission with the next generation of scientists and service members. For some, it was the field trip they would have wanted to take in high school.

“I wish I had this opportunity when I was at LBJ,” said Staff Sgt. Carolina Dilger, a survey team member with the 6th CST. “My military career absolutely would have started here.”

The CST plans to conduct more tours like this in the future as they continue their efforts to support and educate the community. 

“I feel like I have a deeper understanding. I love seeing how it is applied,” said 10th-grader Emma Astad. “I’m really happy I came.”

Promotion Ceremony for SGT Brenda Burns

Story by: CMSgt Paul Lankford

DEL RIO, Texas - Cpl. Brenda Burns was promoted to sergeant on December 17, 2014 during a Texas State Guard promotion ceremony held in Del Rio.

Sgt. Burns, who is assigned to the Texas State Guard’s Army Component Command, 1st Battalion 19th Regiment, is also working alongside the Department of Public Safety and other local law enforcement agencies in a joint-agency operation in the Del Rio area.

The Texas State Guard is a branch of the Texas Military Forces responsible for providing mission-ready military forces to assist state and local authorities in times of state emergencies, with homeland security and community service through Defense Support to Civil Authorities and to augment the other two branches of the Texas Military Forces, the Texas Army National Guard and Texas Air National Guard as force multipliers. The State Guard’s missions are directed by the Commander in Chief of the Texas Military Forces the Governor of Texas and commanded by the Texas Adjutant General.

Arthur Miller, Border Liaison Officer, conducted the promotion ceremony and Sgt. Burns’ husband Russell, who is a veteran U.S. Marine, pinned the new rank on his wife.

Promotion Ceremony picture 1Promotion Ceremony picture 2

TXSG OCS Class 14 Prepares for Graduation

After successfully clearing the low-crawl obstacle on his stomach, Officer Candidate Michael Ross goes for round 2 on his back. Photo Credit Captain Shaw James
After successfully clearing the low-crawl obstacle on his stomach, Officer Candidate Michael Ross goes for round 2 on his back. Photo Credit Captain Shaw James

AUSTIN, Texas - The Texas State Guard (TXSG) Officer Candidate School (OCS) will graduate Class 14 on January 17, 2015.

Class 14, which began in October 2014, is the first to complete the newly revised 5 month accelerated OCS program which includes 1 month of preparatory online classes and 4 monthly drill events at Camp Swift. Previously, candidates completed OCS over 8 months; completing the condensed course has been no easy feat for the 8 candidates remaining from the 15 who started.

"Condensing the OCS drill cycle to five months instead of the previous eight months has proven to be beneficial for the candidates and cadre. The reduced number of drill periods resulted in less time away from families and employment while decreasing the potential for safety concerns during travel. The pace of the course is significantly faster, but overall quality of instruction has not been adversely affected. We believe we will see an increase in applications due to the shortened time frame and we are very pleased with the progress and enthusiasm of the current class of candidates" said COL Thomas Hamilton, TXSG J-7.

The TXSG began the OCS program in 2011 to meet the need for junior officers who are trained and prepared to fulfill the missions unique to the TXSG. The first month of the new OCS program utilizes the online Moodle platform for completion of pre-commissioning courses. The monthly four-day training exercises are designed to test the mental and physical endurance of candidates, while simultaneously requiring the devotion of countless off-duty hours to OCS academic and fitness demands. Class 14 has one more drill weekend before graduation, which will include completion of the Leadership Reaction Course at Fort Hood.

Officer Candidate Scott Runnels gives a hop as he scales down the rappelling tower. Photo Credit Captain Shawn James
Officer Candidate Scott Runnels gives a hop as he scales down the rappelling tower. Photo Credit Captain Shawn James

Class 14 is comprised of 3 candidates from the Army Component, 2 candidates from the Air Component, and 3 candidates from the Texas Maritime Regiment. Candidates are blended from their respective components and come together as one team working towards their graduation and commissioning. Officer Candidate Samuel Sexton stated, “OCS is more challenging than I could have imagined. There is no way to make it as an individual and the key is working as a team and accomplishing the tasks together.”

Graduation will be held at the Camp Mabry Auditorium in Building 8 at 1300 HRS on January 17, 2015.

Class 15 is scheduled to begin in January 2015.

 

Texas State Guard Officer Candidate School Graduates Seven Junior Officers from Class 14

 

OCS Commander CPT JoAnna Carle displays her gift from Class 14 with graduates Second Lieutenant Roy Lopez (Front) and Second Lieutenant Michael Ross (Back). Photo Credit: Capt. Shawn James
OCS Commander CPT JoAnna Carle displays her gift from Class 14 with graduates Second Lieutenant Roy Lopez (Front) and Second Lieutenant Michael Ross (Back). Photo Credit: Capt. Shawn James

AUSTIN, Texas – The Texas State Guard (TXSG) commissioned seven new junior officers from Officer Candidate School (OCS) Class 14 on 17 January 2015. 

The five-month course, condensed from the original eight-month course, began in September 2014. Throughout the course, candidates completed eighteen graded exams, three Army Physical Fitness Tests, the Air Assault Confidence Course at Camp Swift, and the Leadership Reaction Course at Camp Bullis. The candidates also completed the requirements for the TXSG Professional Military Education (PME) Officer Basic Course, in addition to an estimated 350 hours of off-duty time devoted to OCS preparation and study. 

ENS Walker, the Officer Candidate Platoon Leader during the final month of the course stated, “I had to search deep within myself and continuously push to achieve my goal of becoming an officer.” 

Balancing the rigors of OCS, civilian employment, families, and personal responsibilities creates additional substantial stress for the candidates. The graduation ceremony for Class 14 was equally important to those who supported the candidates during their OCS experience. 

MG Jake Betty, TXSG Commanding General, addressed the graduates during the ceremony and stated, “As you start your career as an officer in the State Guard I encourage you to draw on your past experiences, have high morals, maintain your personal appearance, be fair, be consistent, have the courage to do the right thing, set and maintain high standards, and continue to develop as a leader.” 
 
Several graduates received recognition for their achievements during the course:

2nd Lt. Samuel Sexton from the Air Component Headquarters received the Colonel Thomas C. Hamilton Distinguished Honor Graduate Award. 2nd Lt. Sexton is the first recipient of the award presented in COL Hamilton’s name.

ENS Richard Bruner of 3rd Battalion (Lima Co) earned the Academic Excellence Award.

2LT Roy Lopez from 1st Regiment (1st BN) ¬¬was awarded the Leadership Excellence Award.

2nd Lt. Stevie McCoy from the 4th AW (482nd ASG) received the Physical Fitness Award.

The additional graduates were 2LT Michael Ross of the 19th Regiment (2nd BN), ENS Scott Runnels from 1st Battalion (Delta Co), and ENS Timothy Walker from 3rd Battalion (Lima Co). 

The TXSG OCS program is designed to develop junior officers for the unique mission of the TXSG. The OCS curriculum includes the instruction, exercises, and experiences needed to develop officer candidates into successful leaders. The next class is scheduled to begin in March 2015. TXSG personnel interested in applying should contact their unit personnel officer for future application information. 

 

Members of the TXSG OCS Command Staff and Instructor Cadre. Photo Credit: Capt. Shawn James. Top Row (left to right): LT Keith Przybyla, CPT H. Lee Burton, Capt. Christopher Click Bottom Row (left to right): CPT JoAnna Carle, MGySgt(MC) Nichols, COL Thomas Hamilton, MSgt Raymond Winkler, Sgt Patrick Rodriguez
Members of the TXSG OCS Command Staff and Instructor Cadre. Photo Credit: Capt. Shawn James.
Top Row (left to right): LT Keith Przybyla, CPT H. Lee Burton, Capt. Christopher Click
Bottom Row (left to right): CPT JoAnna Carle, MGySgt(MC) Nichols, COL Thomas Hamilton, MSgt Raymond Winkler, Sgt Patrick Rodriguez
TXSG OCS Class 14 Graduates. Photo Credit: Capt. Shawn James Top Row (left to right): 2nd Lt. Samuel Sexton, ENS Timothy Walker, 2LT Michael Ross Bottom Row (left to right): 2LT Roy Lopez, 2nd Lt. Stevie McCoy, ENS Scott Runnels, ENS Richard Bruner
TXSG OCS Class 14 Graduates. Photo Credit: Capt. Shawn James
Top Row (left to right): 2nd Lt. Samuel Sexton, ENS Timothy Walker, 2LT Michael Ross
Bottom Row (left to right): 2LT Roy Lopez, 2nd Lt. Stevie McCoy, ENS Scott Runnels, ENS Richard Bruner

Airmen open hearts, homes to future military working dogs

Story by: 2nd Lt. Phil Fountain

YYork, a military working dog in training with the Department of Defense’s Military Working Dog Breeding Program, is pictured playing with toy in water. YYork is currently being fostered by Col. Susan M. Dickens, commander of the 149th Mission Support Group, Texas Air National Guard, a subordinate unit of the 149th Fighter Wing, at JBSA-Lackland. (Photo courtesy of Col. Susan Dickens / Released)

JOINT BASE SAN ANTONIO – LACKLAND, Texas – Two members of the 149th Fighter Wing, Texas Air National Guard have opened their hearts and homes to future military working dogs. The dogs are from the Department of Defense’s (DoD) Military Working Dog (MWD) Breeding Program, which is operated by the U.S. Air Force’s 341st Training Squadron. The wing and the squadron are both based here.

Col. Susan M. Dickens, commander of the 149th Mission Support Group, and Tech. Sgt. Brandon M. Harrist, an aircraft electrical and environmental systems craftsman assigned to the 149th Maintenance Squadron, are each fostering military working dogs in training.

The puppies were born earlier this year at the program’s JBSA-Lackland facility, they said, and Dickens and Harrist took them home over the summer.

Dickens is caring for YYork, a Belgian Malinois, while Harrist is caring for DDexter, a Dutch Shepard.

“[YYork] is part of the YY4 litter,” Dickens said. “All the puppies in a particular litter have the double first letter in their names.”

The double first letter in the dog’s name indicates they are part of the DoD MWD program.

“Lackland is the largest military working dog training facility in the U.S., and possibly the world,” said Tracy Cann, a foster consultant with the DoD MWD Breeding Program. “This has been the place to train MWDs since the military started using dogs in wartime and in peace.”

Cann manages the recruiting and screening of potential fosters, and also evaluates the health and wellness of the puppies in the program’s care.

There are multiple MWD programs within the DoD, she said, but that all their dogs are processed through the Lackland facility. Cann said there are four programs to train the dogs: a trainer’s course, a specialized search dog course, a combat tracker dog course and a mine detection dog course.

This is not Harrist’s first rodeo when it comes to fostering a MWD in training.

Harrist and his wife, Lora, who is the primary trainer, have previously fostered three Belgian Malinois, he said.

There are some challenges to training working dogs.

“They are very intelligent and have a lot of energy,” Harrist said. “Trying to keep the balance of training them to be a working dog and becoming a pet can be challenging. But we have great people on the breeding program staff and other fosters that are always there to help out.”

Dickens agreed that there are a number of challenges.

“The biggest challenge is the logistics of taking him places with you,” Dickens said. “He is very active, mentally and physically, so you have to ensure he is getting enough activity or he will get into mischief.”

But with the challenges come some unique opportunities.

Harrist said he has escorted his dogs to interact with senior Air Force leaders and has been able to participate in numerous civic demonstrations.

The fosters are expected “to socialize the pups at a young age, so they learn to trust people and aren’t afraid of being in different environments,” Harrist said. They also work with getting the dogs to interact positively to various rewards.

Fosters like Dickens and Harrist are important to the training process and the dog’s success.

“Working dogs are very high energy and intelligent and growing up in a kennel could make them shy and introverted when we need them to be just the opposite,” Cann said. “Foster homes raise the puppies in their homes and socialize them in all kinds of environments, which would not be possible if they were raised in kennels.”

This initial training is important to get the dogs ready for their next level of training and careers.

Dickens said she regulates YYork’s diet to ensure he remains fit for his future training.

“We use the philosophy that he is an athlete and must train and eat right to be the best he can be,” Dickens said. “So no ‘people’ food and no ‘eating’ the toys. Needless to say, we are constantly picking up toy parts once they start getting torn up.”

After the dog’s comprehensive training is complete, Cann said they work on explosive and drug detection patrols, as well as tracking suspects, among other missions. Fosters are a critical component of the getting the dogs to where they need to be.

Beyond the basic training requirements, fosters are also expected to ensure the dog’s receive comprehensive medical care.

“When the puppies are little, you have to take them to the Holland MWD Hospital for their vaccinations,” Dickens said, “which are every few weeks until they are four months old.”

Additionally, all parties within the breeding program maintain close contact with program officials.

“We have monthly training sessions,” Harrist said, “so the heads of the breeding program can see how the pups are progressing and give us feedback, as well as pointers for keeping them on the right tract.”

Dickens said the monthly training sessions are “very helpful and gives you insight on what to expect as they get older.”

“This has been tremendously helpful as a first-time owner,” she said.

The toughest part of the program is saying goodbye, they both said. These dogs will soon head back to the 341st Training Squadron to begin their next level of training.

“The most challenging part for us, really, is their report day,” Harrist said. “You get attached to them as if they are your pet, and it’s hard to say goodbye to them. But then you just keep reminding yourself that these dogs are going to go out and save lives.”

YYork is Dickens’ first foster, and she has been preparing to say goodbye.

“It will be very difficult to not have him with our family anymore,” Dickens said. “But he is definitely ready for the next step. Since he goes to work with me almost every day, I will probably miss him the most and it will take some adjusting to not having my ‘little shadow’ following me everywhere.”

Harrist said the program coordinators attempt to keep him up-to-date with the dog’s training, when possible.

“Sometimes they even send us pictures or video of our dogs in action,” Harrist said. “On occasion, we are lucky enough to see our pups after turn in.”

After returning to the program, the dogs will undergo further training to be readied for transition to an active military unit.

They come back to our trainers and start their pre-training at the age of seven months,” Cann said. “After two weeks of acclimation in their new environment, they are tested in various areas. If they pass testing at that time, they stay in pre-training with our trainers until they are 12 months old.”

“At 12 months, the puppies are tested once more – this is the same test that all MWD's must pass,” she said. “Once tested and accepted, the dogs move onto their respective training schools to receive advanced training for 90-120 days. If the dogs make it through this training, they are tested once again (for certification). When the dogs are certified they are then assigned to a base [or] post and start their operational careers.”

Once in the field, the dogs work for about 10 years.

“They generally work until they are eight to 12 years old,” Cann said. “They are usually adopted by their (military) handler, or to the public, if it is appropriate for the individual dog when they retire.”

But it all starts with those willing to open their hearts and homes to this important program.

“Outside fosters are vital to our program,” Cann said. “Without them, we would not succeed.”

Read more: airmen open hearts homes future military working dogs

36th Infantry Division families board Snowball Express

Photo of Major General Lester Simpson and child
Maj. Gen. Lester Simpson, 36th Infantry Division commander, chats with Jason Thomas in the overhead baggage compartment during a charter flight from Fort Hood. Jason is the son of Staff Sgt. Ryan J. Thomas, who died while serving in the U.S. Air Force. The flight is part of the Snowball Express, a non-profit organization that brings the families of fallen members of the military to the Dallas/Fort Worth area each December. Each of the nine American Airlines charter aircraft were decorated for the mission and the standard in-flight rules were somewhat relaxed for the kids. (36th Infantry Division photo by Maj. Randy Stillinger/Released)

FORT WORTH, Texas – Family members of service members boarded a special flight Thursday with an important mission: provide hope and new happy memories to the children of military fallen heroes who have died on active duty since Sept. 11, 2001.

Several family members of 36th Infantry Division Soldiers were among the special “VIPs” that participated in this year’s Snowball Express, which brought over 1,600 to Fort Worth for this annual event.

Maj. Gen. Lester Simpson, commander of the 36th ID, boarded one of nine American Airlines charter planes at the Dallas/Fort Worth Airport. In San Antonio, the charter plane, which was decorated in Christmas lights and garland, picked up the family of Sgt. Christopher Loza, who died in 2009 while serving with the 1-124th Cavalry Regiment in Iraq.

Upon arrival in San Antonio, Simpson greeted Amelia Gonzalez, the mother of Sgt. Loza, and Iliana Loza, his daughter, in the airport terminal. They then boarded the flight as it continued on to Fort Hood/Killeen before the last leg back to the D/FW airport. 

Simpson, of Rowlett, said, “It’s important to show the kids that they are still part of our military family and ensure they know we haven’t forgotten about them.” 

“It’s an honor to board this flight and be a small part of the Snowball Express, an organization that gives special attention to our Gold Star families while honoring our fallen military heroes,” Simpson said.

During the weekend, the families were treated to a number of different events, including a visit to the Perot Museum of Nature and Science, a trip to the Sheriff’s Posse Ranch in Weatherford, the annual talent show featuring the kids themselves, a show by magician David Hira, and a performance by actor Gary Sinise and the Lt. Dan Band in a hangar at the Fort Worth Joint Reserve Base. Sinise, who is involved in several military causes, regularly supports the Snowball Express and its Gold Star families.

The highlight for many is the traditional Walk of Gratitude, which gives local residents the opportunity to come out, line the streets of Fort Worth, and show their appreciation for the sacrifices of the fallen and their families as the procession goes by. Red, white and blue balloons were then released into the sky by the families with messages to their loved ones. 

Melanie Mason brought three of her four daughters back to Fort Worth for the weekend of fun and remembrance. She is the wife of Staff Sgt. Luke Mason, who died when the helicopter he was on went down in Southern Iraq in September, 2008. 

Staff Sgt. Mason was deployed with 2nd Battalion, 149th Aviation Regiment, the division’s General Support Aviation Battalion, which is headquartered in Grand Prairie. The family has participated in the Snowball Express each year since the accident that took his life.

Mason, of Springtown, said that her family benefits from Snowball Express as they see that they are not alone in their loss. 

“The girls have made some very close friends over the past few years,” Mason said.

As the Snowball Express travels around the Dallas/Fort Worth area during the weekend, they are escorted by local police and the ever-present Patriot Guard Riders. Citizens line the streets with signs and cheer in a show of support. American flags fly from overpasses and veterans stand at attention to salute the convoy of buses as they pass. 

“I really like when we go places and see people standing along the road waving,” Mason said. “I like knowing they are there for us, and that they are there to honor our heroes.”

Mason’s daughter, Sarah, age 10, said that her favorite experience of the weekend was seeing all the animals at the Fort Worth Zoo. 

American Airlines is the lead sponsor of the Snowball Express as it donates the charter airplanes and airline tickets that bring all the families together. Other sponsors include Neiman Marcus, the Airpower Foundation, Dallas Fan Fares and Armed Forces Insurance, among many others. 

For more information on the Snowball Express, go to www.snowballexpress.org .

Read more: 36th infantry division families board snowball express