SAN ANTONIO — A new $15 million veterinary hospital for four-legged military personnel opened Tuesday at Lackland Air Force Base, offering a long overdue facility that gives advanced medical treatment for combat-wounded dogs.
Dogs working for all branches of the military and the Transportation Safety Administration are trained at the base to find explosive devices, drugs and land mines. Some 2,500 dogs are working with military units.
Like soldiers in combat, military dogs suffer from war wounds and routine health issues that need to be treated to ensure they can continue working.
Dogs injured in Iraq or Afghanistan get emergency medical treatment on the battlefield and are flown to Germany for care. If necessary, they'll fly on to San Antonio for more advanced treatment — much like wounded human personnel.
"We act as the Walter Reed of the veterinary world," said Army Col. Bob Vogelsang, hospital director, referring to the Washington military medical center that treats troops returning severely wounded from Iraq and Afghanistan.
The dogs can usually return to combat areas if they recover at the Military Working Dog Center, he said.
Before the center opened, veterinarians treated and rehabilitated dogs in a cramped building that opened in 1968, when the military trained dogs for work in Vietnam.
The hospital was already overloaded by Sept. 11, 2001, but since then, demand for military working dogs has jumped dramatically. They are so short on dog breeds such as German shepherds, Labrador retrievers and Belgian Malinoises that Lackland officials have begun breeding puppies at the base.
Lackland is training 750 dogs, which is nearly double the number of dogs there before the Sept. 11 attacks, Vogelsang said.
To treat the trainees and injured working dogs, the new hospital has operating rooms, digital radiography, CT scanning equipment, an intensive care unit and rehab rooms with an underwater treadmill and exercise balls, among other features. A behavioral specialist has an office near the lobby.
"This investment made sense ... and somehow, we were able to convince others," said retired Col. Larry Carpenter, who first heard complaints about the poor facilities in 1994 and later helped to launch the project.
Training a military working dog takes about four months. With demand outstripping the number of dogs available, hospital and veterinary workers were trying to keep them healthy and working as long as possible, Vogelsang said.
Working dogs usually enter training at 1½- to 3-years-old, and most can work until they're about 10, he said.
Then, the military tries to adopt them out and "station them at Fort Living Room," Vogelsang said.