Alicia Dennis
March 15, 2010 12:00 PM

Surgeon Maj. Michelle Franklin leans in closer, checking sutures under the examining room’s spotlight. “We’ve done four surgeries to try to close this,” she says, pointing to a stubborn leg wound. Her patient looks up at her with quiet, trusting brown eyes. Then he wags his tail. “Looking good today,” Franklin tells Sumo, a 5-year-old Belgian Tervuren shepherd. “He can heal from this and go back to work.”

Welcome to Holland Military Working Dog Hospital. The one-year-old, $15 million facility that director and veterinary surgeon Col. Bob Vogelsang calls “the Walter Reed for dogs” is the only place of its kind. But like its human counterpart Walter Reed Army Medical Center, Holland-located at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio-treats those who serve their country. In Iraq and Afghanistan, the U.S. uses dogs to support troops in bomb and insurgent detection. “If one dog finds one explosive, he’s saved at least 150 soldiers’ lives,” says Navy Petty Officer 1st Class Ekali Brooks, 34, who deployed to Iraq with a German shepherd named Bak. While most animals can be treated on-site in war zones, those that need further therapy come here, and Holland is always busy, treating about 60 dogs per day. (Besides military dogs, they provide care for dogs used by the Transportation Security Administration, U.S. Customs Service and other government agencies.)

Named for Lt. Col. Daniel E. Holland, a veterinarian killed in Iraq in 2006, the hospital boasts state-of-the-art diagnostic tools, surgical suites and an ICU that is more ER than Dr. Doolittle. “I’m not dissing veterinary equipment,” says Vogelsang, 47. “But we have excellent human equipment.”

On a recent morning, Aika, a 5-year-old German shepherd, works out on an underwater treadmill. Her back legs gave out after two months’ deployment in Iraq; initial tests were inconclusive. Doctors at Holland diagnosed a degenerative joint condition and operated in November to remove an internal mass. Eager to please, the dog easily takes to walking briskly half-submerged. “They’re working dogs-this is another job,” says rehabilitation technician Kelley Meyer, 43. Aika looks to her for approval, and Meyer responds with a smile, a pat and a “good girl.” Says Meyer: “We give them treats to help them enjoy therapy; it’s all about happiness and a good time. The sooner we get rehab started, the sooner dogs heal.”

Dogs that can’t go back to work get adopted, like Fritz, a 12-year-old retired German shepherd explosives expert, who was taken home by Jennifer and Lawrence Cox in Duncannon, Pa., in October 2009. “Somebody’s son came back because of a dog,” says Jennifer, 28, who flew to Texas to pick him up. “Fritz was perfect.” Well, almost. When UPS came with a delivery, “he jumped into the truck and sniffed all the packages-they were safe!” After three months with the family, Fritz passed away early this year. “Once they can’t do their job,” explains Vogelsang, “we want them to live out their years chasing squirrels and getting loved.”

But the majority of Holland’s patients return to their posts. “Like soldiers, dogs have multiple deployments,” says Vogelsang. Unless their humans need them even more. One dog’s handler was too badly injured to return, he recalls, so her dog stayed with her. “Our soldiers are tough and don’t want to show weakness,” the doctor says. “But they can sit down after a particularly hard day and tell their dog things they can’t say to anyone else.”

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