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August Chaplain's Reflections

Portrait of Avalon, the emotional support therapy dog with the 169th Fighter Wing Chaplain Corps at McEntire Joint National Guard Base, South Carolina Air National Guard, March 19, 2019. (U.S. Air National Guard photo by Master Sgt. Caycee Watson)

Portrait of Avalon, the emotional support therapy dog with the 169th Fighter Wing Chaplain Corps at McEntire Joint National Guard Base, South Carolina Air National Guard, March 19, 2019. (U.S. Air National Guard photo by Master Sgt. Caycee Watson)

MCENTIRE JOINT NATIONAL GUARD BASE, S.C. --

Editor’s note: This month, the Reflections column was submitted by Avalon, the 169th Fighter Wing Ministry Team's service dog who belongs to Chaplain (Maj.) Christina Pittman. Avalon will turn four years old shortly. This is her debut column. 

You can imagine my pleasant shock when I traded prison bars for the roar of planes and the smell of jet fuel. Despite the transition from what I knew in Massachusetts to a strange new land in South Carolina, my tail wagged wildly for my handler and my Airmen friends I now serve. Lifting the spirits of military members and their families is my dream job! Preparing to join this military life started young. As a puppy I knew training as play time in the trusted hands of inmates at a low security prison farm. On weekends my puppy trainer and I would venture out into the world so I could acclimatize to life experiences outside the prison. All this equipped me to be here at McEntire Joint National Guard Base.

In January 2019, I was matched to Chaplain Christina Pittman for service with the South Carolina Air National Guard. I knew this was a special job when she was the only handler wearing a uniform one day during our training class at National Education of Assistance Dog Services campus. After ten days of meeting and training with my new handler, I was off to Lexington, South Carolina from Princeton, Massachusetts. I was starting my new and best life at just seventeen months old.

When I first started working at McEntire, I met lots of new people who were always happy to see me and who wanted to play ball with me. The mood in the maintenance shops seemed to lift as I ventured from shop to shop. Sometimes my human would stop and talk a while when visiting people around base. This was my cue to quietly lay down and take a quick nap. Seeing me brings smiles to people’s faces and has led to lots of talking about me and what I do. But most importantly working here at the base is a way my human and I show that we care for each one of you. Chaplain Pittman uses words to describe this interaction as assistance dog integration for mental, emotional, and spiritual care. I just know good vibes flow when the wonderful people in uniform pet me, their kids kiss me on the head and when I curl up with Airmen on my handler’s office couch.           

How does my human get me to do all I do? Well, as some of you know I am motivated by treats. She keeps them in her left uniform pants pocket and some personnel have them at their desks. When I am released to say hello I greet people by shaking their hands, resting my head on their lap or getting real close with my body pressing up against them like a hug. All these ways and more I use to connect with others. This interaction is important because being with animals has health benefits. It can lower blood pressure and center a person with in the moment mindfulness. I also witness emotional break-throughs with Airmen in grief. I can get close to hug and comfort them. I go to the hospital to make visits lifting spirits. Unit engagements are a favorite time for me and my human too. At memorial services I walk alongside Chaplain Pittman to offer military honors to our service members who died. My job is not serious all the time. When I am not working or training, I live a home with my human as her family dog. My family includes her children Graham, Elena, and Wyatt. We enjoy sharing life growing-up together.         

After two-and-a-half years of working at McEntire and almost being four years old, I celebrate all I do. My work brings so much in such a short time to care for and minister to military personnel and veterans. I am humbled to be a part of this historical pioneering of implementing assistance dogs with active military service members and veterans full time. This past spring, we completed a doctoral project and dissertation researching my implementation in the military. The results showed an increased impact on a service member’s work life and counseling through interaction with an assistance dog ministry team. The innovation we bring to the mental emotional and spiritual care of our service members and veterans is life changing. Already my paw prints are in hospitals, schools, national cemeteries, churches, homes, the Air Force Chaplain Corps College at Maxwell AFB, the South Carolina Adjutant General’s office, National Guard Bureau, Shaw AFB, army installations, Navy/Marine chaplaincy and on the hearts of those who carry the burdens and sacrifices with honor of serving this great nation. I have even travelled to Colombia, South America for a State Partnership Program visit.           

Chaplain Pittman says I am a shining star with her Swamp Fox family at McEntire Joint National Guard Base.  And that others are blessed to be in the rays of the light of hope and unconditional love I give so tirelessly. She appreciates me as a gift impossible to measure. And our gratefulness is life-long in the spirit of all those who have the opportunity to meet me and are transformed by my selfless service through the hope me and my handler team offers.

Enjoy meeting this team at our next Strong Bonds, an Individual Airman event held at Hickory Knob State Park 20-22 August 2021.  RV, tent sites and cabin lodging are available. Keep watch of future events in FY 2022.

Your Chaplain Corps can be reached at 803-647-8265.  Blessings!