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Human/Animal Bond

9/11: Remembering the SAR Teams at the Pentagon
September 11, 2012 (published)
Phyllis DeGioia

Dr. Mark Honaker took some photographs of the dogs searching through the pancaked building. Traversing the rubble is hard to fathom.

Given that I am a histrionic Italian prone to bursts of weeping, researching an article for the VIN News Service about the search and rescue veterinarians at the Pentagon on 9/11 caused me to cry every day for a while. The interviews I had with two veterinarians left me in deep disarray, appreciative of their personal sacrifices and tearful about the terrorism, the innocents who died, and the incredible acts of courage and bravery by so many people facing a surreal situation that no one should ever have to endure.

Last year on the tenth anniversary of 9/11 I wrote a piece about the veterinarians volunteering at the World Trade Center. No surprise, I cried copiously while doing that research. Most of the folks I interviewed for that one cried too, and there were a lot of embarrassed apologies going back and forth over the phone. Both articles have been difficult for me but hopefully cathartic for them.

We owe these folks something, after all.

Like the vast majority of Americans, I experienced 9/11 through the television, far from the smoke and debris. While I watched TV, a handful of people were gearing up to do something useful: look for survivors using trained search and rescue (SAR) dogs, or find their remains. Those dogs needed veterinarians.

Emergency task force teams that included SAR dogs were immediately deployed to the Pentagon. The few survivors were found within the first few hours, so by the time the SAR teams got there they were only seeking bodies.

“We found some remains,” said Dr. Mary Berry of Albuquerque, NM, who went to the Pentagon with the disaster rescue team New Mexico Task Force 1. She was with the team for 16 years, although now she sticks to wilderness rescue. “They weren't bodies. You'd end up with a scalp or a finger, and that was hard to think about it in terms of the impact of the plane when it hit that building, it smashed everything to smithereens.”

Dr. Berry found it uncommon. I found it unfathomable.

Her involvement with NMTF-1 was as a dog handler; she just also happens to be a veterinarian, so she could fulfill two purposes on a team. Almost everyone on these FEMA disaster teams, in which dogs are only one component, has more than one skill to contribute. Most of these teams do not have a veterinarian, and the dogs are supposed to be cared for by human medical personnel. But some veterinarians, like Dr. Berry, are on duty.

Dr. Mark Honaker, an emergency care veterinarian in Virginia Beach, VA, has been part of the Virginia Task Force-2 (VATF-2) for 18 years, and he has always been the team veterinarian. Like Dr. Berry, he’s been to a lot of hurricane sites. Dr. Honaker became a certified class 2 commercial driver as his other supportive skill.

To the best of our knowledge, these two veterinarians were the only ones deployed to the Pentagon, (and they didn't even meet) although Dr. Honaker said there was a military veterinarian who gave him some meds he wanted. That's in contrast to the private sector World Trade Center, where numerous veterinarians just showed up to volunteer. The Pentagon was in total lockdown – not a surprise for the center of our military and intelligence community - and people couldn’t just walk off the street to help. The only SAR teams that were at the Pentagon were those already in a FEMA task force team.

At the Pentagon, Dr. Honaker didn’t drive anything except his own work ethic. He walked through the rubble with the dog teams so that a veterinarian would be there if anything happened to a dog. His effort to be there with them, even though he didn’t have to endanger himself by being inside the building, is more than admirable to couch-dwelling civilians like me. To folks used to this kind of thing, it’s the norm, so they don’t seem to grasp what a big deal it is.

The odor they described was intense. In my mind, I could smell it, but it had to be far worse in real life than in my imagination.

“Smells trigger memories. The interior of the Pentagon smelled like a wet old campfire, like when you're putting it out with a canteen of water,” Dr. Berry said. “There had been the fire, and there was still some smell of the jet fuel. That is something I'll never forget.”

Dr. Honaker’s team was parked in a bus adjacent to the Pentagon by 7 p.m. on the day it was hit. Dr. Berry’s team was in the second wave, so she started a few days after Dr. Honaker’s team and left a few days before he did.

What dogs needed medically was pretty basic stuff. Both of them said that most of the trouble was some diarrhea, and some SAR dogs don't eat well for the first few days. There were some minor scraped up paws and irritated eyes. In terms of injuries, the most common issue was a cut on a paw pad. Berry's dog Dusty cut his paw on pieces of broken mirror after going through a bathroom. The paw was bandaged, and Dusty was back at work the next day, sporting a bootie over his bandage.

The dogs routinely went through the same decontamination procedures as the rest of the team. The procedure changed as the days went by.

“Initial decon was very rudimentary and consisted of spraying off our boots and simply removing any obviously contaminated clothes,” Honaker said. “The dogs were washed down after each shift. Decon became progressively more intense as the deployment went on. Eventually we and the dogs were going through a full 3-stage decon which involved stripping down to your 'skivvies' and getting a complete wash down and discarding work clothes to a common bin to be cleaned up at a later date.”

He actually made me laugh when he said the dogs weren’t wearing skivvies. It’s quite a skill to make someone laugh when you’re talking about 9/11. I guess ER vets know how to lighten difficult discussions.

All details aside, an experience like 9/11 becomes a permanent part of the psyche of those who worked it, more so than it does for those of us who watched it unfold on television. Honaker and Berry were at Hurricane Katrina, and still, the Pentagon is the most surreal SAR experience for each of them.

Honaker gets emotional talking about the experience.

“I think you lock it away. It's hard to talk about it,” Honaker said. “I think for a lot of us when you open the door and toss memories in and lock it and put it away, then when the door is opened it comes out.”

He choked up for a moment when he mentioned that just a few months ago he’d seen the last living SAR dog from the Pentagon, a 14-year old Australian shepherd named Joey.

Both of them are proud of what they did there. They found remains, which meant so much to the families of the missing. They provided closure that no one else could.

"For anyone holding out hope for a miracle, at least knowing and getting confirmation could bring some closure," Honaker said. "All the teams worked well together, all the government agencies played well together.”

What worries me – and Dr. Honaker and Dr. Berry - is that because of the difference in scope, the Pentagon could become nearly forgotten some day. It could become what is essentially a footnote to the World Trade Center, a kind of “by the way, did you know a plane also hit the Pentagon?” I desperately do not want that to happen, and I ask you to help avoid such a circumstance.

If you want to learn more about the 9/11 SAR teams, read a terrific book written by Nona Kilgore Bauer called Dog Heroes of September 11th. Make sure you get the tenth anniversary edition; Dr. Berry and Dusty are on page 140. They’re on a different page in the first edition. I can't look inside this book without tears welling up, but once I settle down with it and a box of tissues, I am fascinated by all the people and dogs.

I don’t know the best definition of a hero, but the first responders who volunteer for this kind of thing are the sheer embodiment of it.

While you’re reading and piling up soggy tissues, think of Dr. Honaker and Joey, who are not in it, and of how much time Dr. Berry and Dusty spent training for SAR work. Think of the SAR dog teams and veterinarians at the World Trade Center, and all those other people who volunteer to help during the worst time of someone’s life – even the worst time of a nation’s life.

To those folks, I can only say: thanks from a grateful nation.

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