June 14, 2014 marked a new chapter in the history of the Texas A&M Veterinary Emergency Team (TAMU VET). Thanks to Texas Task Force 1, TAMU VET has been integrated with search and rescue since our inception. Most of our deployments have been the result of natural disasters where our mission was to provide veterinary medical support for the search and rescue dogs while also providing triage and stabilization for injured or ill resident animals. The June 14th deployment was the team’s first deployment in support of law enforcement activities.
TAMU VET deployed our search and rescue support mission ready package to assist with a long-standing criminal investigation. Three veterinarians, two veterinary technicians, one logistics technician, six senior veterinary medical students and one graduate student participated in the investigation and used our 38’ clinic platform as our base of operations. The search area was in a very rugged part of Texas and high ambient temperatures and the potential for snake-bites of the canine team members were our primary concern. Our thoughts were initially focused on getting our equipment and people safely into difficult terrain and then quickly achieving an operational status. We were there for the search teams and their dogs. That quickly changed when we learned more about the person being searched for and the details of the case after arriving on scene.
A young woman, home from school, leaves her family and goes on a morning run. This is a common occurrence that most, if not all parents experience. One of their children leaves and is expected to arrive safely home some time later. Returning safely home is expected. Yes, we worry, but we almost take it for granted that our loved one will indeed return safely home. In this particular case, that morning run 12 years ago, did not go as expected. She did not return safely home. In spite of the dedication and hard work of her family and law enforcement officials, she has not been found. She has not returned safely home.
This story had a tremendous impact on team members. We still focused on the search dogs, but there was so much more behind our work. In all honesty, this deployment had become very personal. I think everyone involved thought about their loved ones and most certainly thought about the family that so deserves answers and closure. I think every team member thought about the lead detective on the case, the hours worked, the dedication, and his feeling that this is very personal.
There were early indications of success, a dog alerted on a site. A second dog was brought in and alerted in exactly the same location. Search team members started excavating the area and asked for help. Displaying true Aggie spirit, veterinary medical students, veterinarians, and veterinary technicians worked side by side shoveling the central Texas clay for someone, the family of someone, they have never met.
The search dog returned to examine the location and alerted in the same location. This particular dog’s way of alerting their handler of a find was to lie down and look at the owner. We had the opportunity to observe this. I admit that the following statement likely comes more from my own emotions at that moment, but what I saw was a dog expressing a very profound feeling of sadness. She was beautiful. She was regal. In my opinion, she was also profoundly sad. Work continued and a third dog was brought in, alerting at the same location.
As the canine search teams ended their operation, the members of the VET and the veterinary medical students packed up their equipment and headed back to Texas A&M University with a whole new perspective of mission, Aggie spirit, service, compassion, and the value of being able to “return safely home.”
Each and every deployment the VET undertakes has an operative mission at the core, but it also is an opportunity to learn valuable life lessons that in turn fuel the dedication and commitment each team member carries inside them to provide hope to people on the darkest of days. As of June 19, 2014, this deployment has not yielded the definitive answers so desperately needed by the family and law enforcement officers working the case. The TAMU VET stands ready to assist if needed on future searches and prays that this young lady ultimately makes it safely home. It was an honor to serve the family, law enforcement officers, and search team members.
I couldn’t be prouder of the VET members that deployed, those team members that remained behind to support our efforts from home, the efforts of our financial supporters, and the countless hours we all put in to make sure that everyone gets “safely home”.