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By Randy Martin
Area Support Group - Qatar
Thirty-five U.S. military service members went on a caring mission during their deployment to Qatar, Aug. 9, 2019. They gave their time and some chewable gifts to an animal rescue shelter where more than 130 cats and dogs live, just outside the nation’s capital.
It was not the first time American troops based at Camp As Sayliyah visited the shelter. Similar visits will continue as a legacy for their replacements if two well-meaning, N.J. Army National Guard, noncommissioned officers, get their way.
“We started out just wanting to find the animals in Doha, Qatar’s capital, and see what was going on with rescues,” said Sgt. Lia Cater a Queens, New York native and team leader with A Company, 1st Battalion, 114th Infantry Regiment, NJARNG. Cater said that she and another dog-lover, and fellow NJARNG Soldier, regularly helped stray animals during unit training in the U.S.
Both wanted to find a way to help animals while on this deployment. So, in early June, they assembled a team of veterinarians, dog-handlers, and other Soldiers at CAS who wanted to visit the shelter or walk dogs.
“We took 100 pounds of dog food and 50 pounds of cat food. The shelter’s staff was overwhelmed to see us,” Cater said. “They had never had such a large group come out all at once and volunteer.”
The subsequent, August 9, trip was their tenth but its size had grown so much that two buses were needed to carry the “walkers” and supplies. “They primarily need people to come out and walk dogs, help the dogs exercise, and give the animals some personal attention,” said Cater. There was a sense of excitement during the 36-mile bus ride from CAS.
“This program gives something for everyone to look forward to,” said Sgt. Jimmy Simmermon, a team leader in B Company, 1st Battalion, 114th Infantry from Blackwood, N.J. and Cater’s partner for the shelter initiative. “It is also good for relations between the U.S. and Qatar,” said Simmermon.
The buses exited a paved road and headed into the desert before stopping at the gated entrance to a farm-like compound. Inside there was trees, tall grass, buildings, kennels and a road.
The bus's accordion doors clapped open and the troops jumped into the late afternoon heat. With humidity, it felt like 124 degrees F.
No one complained and large bags of dry food, 500 pounds in all, and pet toys were automatically unloaded and shuttled to a central courtyard and collection point.
Unseen masses of cicadas sang joined 94 barking dogs for a deafening roar that drowned out all other sounds.
The shelter’s three, full-time staff members hustled to each kennel, unfastening doors, and connecting dogs to visitors. Then, bonded by a leash, the human and animal teams set out for their half-mile walk on the dusty farm road.
Meanwhile, cats waited in their shaded domains. They allowed themselves to be petted by humans of their choice even as curious dogs paraded by.
“There is a therapeutic effect for a lot of people because the dogs and cats provide a love that resembles what they have with their pets back home,” said Cater.
Pair by pair, dogs and humans reached the finish line. After their hour-long session, a little more tired than before, walkers and their canine companions parted ways.
Then, except for the cicadas, peace settled over the animal shelter.
A full-time shelter caretaker said that the animal population changes daily. Some will be adopted and sent to homes around the world while others show up when no owner is found.
Cater said that all the service members can earn credit for their volunteer service at the shelter but a few expressed their own heartfelt motive for taking part.
“It feels like I got something in return for all those hours we give to the animals,” said Sgt. Karen Lema, a team leader with B Company, 1st Battalion, 114th Infantry Regiment, from Elmwood Park, N.J.
“We love them. We care about them and I look forward to coming back here every time.”
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