Military News

Tuesday, February 02, 2016

For the love of dogs - MWDs help MOD worker through personal turmoil

by Gina Randall
100th Air Refueling Wing Public Affairs

2/2/2016 - RAF MILDENHALL, England -- For Ministry of Defence employee Deborah Black, 100th Security Forces Squadron kennel attendant, her passion for her job and the dogs she cares for each day motivated her to overcome the news she had developed a life-threatening illness.

"My world fell apart when I was diagnosed with breast cancer three years ago and following extensive treatment, I returned to work. Being here has significantly helped me put that to the back of my mind and focus on getting on with my job," said Black. "It's been a big benefit in aiding my recovery, both physically and psychologically, as it has distracted me from dwelling on my health issues. The exercise and interaction with the dogs and people I work with has definitely played a big part in my recovery, together with the support of my family and friends. Three years later and I'm good. My most recent mammogram last month was all clear."

The exercise and outdoor lifestyle may have helped her mentally and physically, but it was a life-long passion that brought her to RAF Mildenhall nearly 15 years ago. A journey began that would allow her to extend her family to the Service members she works with each day, both human and canine.

"I wanted to work here because I just love dogs," Black laughed. "I've always loved dogs. Prior to this job, I worked at a pet nutrition unit for a food company for seven years which is where I got most of the canine experience. Following redundancy from there, I saw this job advertised, came for an interview and was offered the position. I still had a passion to work with dogs and decided to take the job. And 15 years on I still love it."

No day at work is the same for Black and she knows the dogs better than anyone -- from the day they arrive on base as a young recruit, to the day their "do not pet" leash is hung up for good.

"This job is very unique in terms of working with dogs. I get to see these highly skilled dogs train and develop in their capabilities, improve and become very competent over the years," Black added. "I get to know the dogs' personalities and behaviors very well as I spend so much time with them daily from the time they arrive off the plane, to the day they retire years later."

It's the characters of the dogs that make Black's day brighter, even through her darkest times.

"The dogs definitely all have individual personalities, a real mish-mash of personalities," Black added with a smile. "To give you examples, Gina, she is really loving, quiet and kind. Oorion is a real macho man, 'look at me' kind of dog, with huge drive. Brock is like a grumpy old man (even though he is not very old) - after he's eaten his food, he lies on his bed and says 'I'm not getting up yet!' They all have their own endearing individual traits."

The dogs have a job to do, just like their handlers, but Black gets to spend time and energy caring for the four-legged warriors who serve their country.

"The dogs bring so much to my day, they make me feel happy and give unconditional love," Black reflected fondly. "You go in the kennels first thing in the morning and they are all there looking at you with expectation. I'm there all the time for the dogs whereas the handlers come and go. The handlers move bases and I am with these dogs until the day they are retired. They stay at this base their whole lives and don't go anywhere apart from on missions. In the past they have deployed with their handlers for six months at a time but recently they only go out on missions."

Black also enjoys working with the humans in the work center.

"I think the military people I work with are wonderful," she said. "I've made so many friends over the years, I think I could go and stay in many of the states in America and I would be very welcome. I still keep in touch with a lot of handlers who have served here. We have a really good relationship at the kennels. I'm the only civilian, but I get included in everything, both at work and socially. It's not like, 'you are the kennel attendant, and you aren't involved.' They actually come to me with all sorts of issues both personal and work-related and I help them out."

When the time comes for Black to say a fond farewell to a dog for the final time after years of faithful service, she is happy to know they will be cared for as a hero deserves. All the dogs are sadly missed, but for Black some will stay in her memories forever.

"I feel very sad when they retire. Nice in the fact that they are going to retire and go home with somebody that they know, but sad in the fact that we won't see them here," Black explained. "I try not to have favorites, but in the past there was Ootto. He was a magnificent big dog, our first Belgian Malinois to come to Mildenhall, and he was probably the stand-out dog of all time. He has passed away now at the age of 12. He had a nice, well-earned retirement back in the states with his former handler who adopted him. He enjoyed retirement for about two years before it was his time."

She recalled that for those who worked with him each day, Ootto was the epitome of the type of dog that handlers hope for as they are assigned a partner for duty.

"Ootto was such an amazing dog, such an all-round amazing dog," Black said. "He was brilliant at detection and bite work. When he was getting ready to retire, the handler who adopted him would have his small children around him and he was as gentle as a lamb! He was that good. He was just the ultimate MWD."

The U.S. Air Force entrusts its valuable assets to people who are as dedicated to the dogs as it is to the military members and the Air Force mission. And for Black, her leadership couldn't be prouder of her care of their dogs.

"It was very distressing for the entire kennel staff when we heard the news of Mrs. Black's situation a few years back. Not only is she a work colleague, but a true friend who has a big heart," said Tech. Sgt. Samuel Giordano, 100th SFS kennel master. "As scary as it was, we all knew she would be fine. Additionally, none of us would accept that she wouldn't be back working with the dogs. She is truly an irreplaceable asset with her vast experience working with these animals. Mrs. Black is the true continuity of this section. I like to think I am the boss, but really she is!"

For Black, the people she works with have become her extended family and she never takes the job she loves for granted.

"It's totally changed my outlook on life," Black said about her illness. "I try to make the most of everything, every day. Make every moment as enjoyable as possible as you really don't know what is around the corner."

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