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Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Congress acts to let wounded soldier keep her on-duty dog

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

This is the story of a soldier and her dog, and the act of Congress required to keep them together.

It began in July, when Air Force Tech. Sgt. Jamie Dana woke up, confused, in a hospital bed at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington.

Her last memory was riding in a military convoy in Iraq after she and her bomb-sniffing dog, Rex, had searched a village. She remembered being in extreme pain. And she remembered asking frantically about Rex, eventually being told that he had not survived.

But she didn't know that the military had told her husband, fellow Air Force security officer Mike Dana, that she wasn't going to survive her injuries.

She didn't know that, after a bomb exploded under her Humvee, she spent more than a week in military hospitals in Iraq and Germany before arriving in Washington.

And she didn't know that Rex had survived the bombing with only a minor burn on his nose.

It was partly for the love of animals that Dana, 26, joined the Air Force after graduating from high school. Growing up surrounded by cows, horses and pigs on a farm in Hazel Hurst, Pa., she knew that she wanted to be a veterinarian and that the Air Force had a canine handler program.

She handled a few other dogs first, but about three years ago, she was paired with Rex, an 80-pound German shepherd.

She and Rex were deployed to Pakistan, where they spent nearly every minute together, doing walking patrols, riding in armored Humvees and searching vehicles and houses. She had pet dogs growing up, but her bond with Rex was different.

"We depend on each other as a lifeline," she said.

After six months in Pakistan, she and Rex returned to Peterson Air Force Base in Colorado Springs, Colo., where she was stationed. And even though she wasn't scheduled to be deployed again, Dana wanted to go to Iraq.

"I pretty much begged to go," she said.

The bomb exploded under her Humvee three weeks after she arrived in Iraq. The explosion collapsed her lungs, fractured her pelvis and her spine and sent her into hemorrhagic shock.

Her husband flew from Colorado, where he was stationed, to Germany and then to Washington to be by her side.

When she regained consciousness at Walter Reed, she immediately thought of Rex. "He was always on my mind," she said. "From the moment I was actually starting to become coherent again, I started asking about him."

When Rep. John E. Peterson, R-Pa., visited her in the hospital, she enlisted his help in adopting Rex. "For her to go through all that trauma, all that pain, it seemed to me that if Rex was her first love, Rex should be at her side," he said.

When Rex came to the hospital for the first time, Dana whistled when she heard him coming. He immediately ran down the hallway and jumped into her hospital bed, tangling himself up in her tubes.

"We were both pretty excited," she said. "Just to see him, to know that he remembered me."

But the long-term adoption process wasn't as simple as Dana had hoped.

Peterson sent an official request to the Air Force, only to receive a letter telling him that adopting a military war dog was prohibited by law until the dog reached retirement age because of the $18,000 training expense.

It would take congressional intervention for the adoption to go through. And although the Air Force initially was opposed to the adoption, the agency eventually was instrumental in getting the ball rolling.

A spokeswoman for Rep. John Murtha, D-Pa., said the secretary of the Air Force contacted his office and asked the congressman to insert language on Dana into the defense appropriations bill. Murtha agreed, although the final language is still pending.

Last week, Sen. John Warner. R-Va., agreed to insert similar language into the Senate defense appropriations bill.

When Peterson told Dana that the adoption looked likely, she cried.

Dana was allowed to take Rex home with her to the family farm in Hazel Hurst, where she spent most of November on leave. As she continued her recovery, Rex adjusted to a civilian lifestyle.

Dana is now walking with a cane, though she faces extensive rehabilitation. The Air Force has awarded her the Purple Heart.

Friday, she flew to Colorado, where she will take a desk job while the military medical boards evaluate her case. She plans to take a few remaining science classes and apply to vet school.

(Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service, http://www.shns.com.)

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