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Paws among Paratroopers: Therapy dog calms, uplifts and heals

FORT BRAGG, N.C. – The cold morning air sent chills across Paratroopers’ skin as they waited for the four-mile Division run to start. Everyone appeared cold, except for one.

Lt. Col. Lexy appeared impervious to the chilled breeze as she visited shivering Paratroopers standing in formation—it must have been her fur coat that shielded most of the cold.

Paratroopers with the 82nd Airborne Division shower military therapy dog, Lt. Col. Lexy, with attention before kicking-off All American Week with a four-mile Division run at Fort Bragg

Dressed in her therapy dog Army combat uniform, Lexy showed interest in the gathering of countless Paratroopers by smelling her surroundings and cautiously greeting people. She appeared excited to join more than 15,000 Paratroopers in the run that kicks off All American Week.

Lexy is Fort Bragg’s first therapy dog, said Maj. Christina Rumayor, 82nd Airborne Division’s psychiatrist.

“Therapy is a hard place to walk into,” she said. “It’s very scary a lot of times, and there’s a lot of stigma attached to it. So, they are initially afraid and anxious, but when they see a therapy dog there, their first thought is ‘well, this can’t be such a bad place.’”

Relaxation is crucial to a Soldier’s mental health, which is something both Rumayor and Lexy know well. Lexy has been trained to recognize elevations in an individual’s anxiety and meet them with affection. Rumayor said that during emotional portions of therapy, it is natural to crave the comfort of a hug, but that would be an inappropriate role for doctors to fill for patients. Cue Lexy; she and other therapy dogs can offer a comforting touch, pat or hug in a completely appropriate way, which in turn, helps distract and comfort the patient.

“If Lexy notices that a person is becoming more anxious or upset, she will often move to them so they can pet her, which is extremely calming for many people,” Rumayor said. “Her purpose in the therapy sessions is very specific to what the patient needs.”

Rumayor sees value to having therapy dogs around people who work in stressful jobs and explains how easily animals can change people’s attitudes.

Military therapy dog, Lt. Col. Lexy, and her handler, Maj. Christina Rumayor, 82nd Airborne Division psychiatrist, encourage the 82nd Airborne Division Paratroopers at the finish line of the four-mile Division run

“In the past year, I’d say we’ve gotten about a dozen or so patients that we’ve seen,” she said. “And we’ve got the data that we’ve pulled showing that they come into [the] clinic, they stay in treatment—which is super important—and they like coming into [the] clinic.”

Staff Sgt. Dennis Swols, Warrior Transition Unit, suffered for years looking for quick fixes to his debilitating injury of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Since joining the Army in 1998 as an infantryman, Swols deployed seven times; five of those deployments were to Iraq and Afghanistan.

In his year of treatment with Rumayor and Lexy, he said the dog has helped him put his struggles with Post Traumatic Stress into words during therapy, simply by having her in the room.

“Without a doubt Lexy has made a difference,” he said. “It’s very easy with Lexy and Maj. Rumayor.”

Spc. Jeremiah Sampson (left), protocol specialist with Headquarters and Headquarters Battalion, 82nd Airborne Division, and Maj. Christina Rumayor (right), 82nd Abn. Div. psychiatrist, shower military therapy dog, Lt. Col. Lexy with praise after participating in the four-mile Division run,

When his doctor initially referred him to work with Lexy, he was openly skeptical; however, it didn’t take long for Lexy’s calm disposition and attentiveness to win him over.

“There is so much help out there for PTSD, and you just have to find what works for you,” he said. “Lexy was there, and she helped. It worked for me.”

Rumayor saw the value in this type of therapy years ago and wrote a policy in 2011 requesting to initiate the Animal Assisted Therapy Program through Army Womack Medical Center at Fort Bragg. At that time, Lexy was already certified as a therapy dog, and in 2013, the policy passed.

“Treatment with Lexy and other therapy dogs is a great ancillary to give to Soldiers as a way to get better,” she said. “The important part is giving great care to our Paratroopers and Soldiers.”

Though the program is new, the bond between Rumayor and Lexy spans half a decade.

Lexy was one of several German Shepard puppies Rumayor visited while stationed in Hawaii. At only eight weeks old, Rumayor noticed Lexy’s curiosity and gentle temperament as traits that she wanted in a companion.

From that day on, they were Family. However, Rumayor had also found a larger Family in the Army, to whom she believed Lexy could help bring encouragement, joy and a sense of normalcy for some Soldiers.

“I think for many of them, she brings pieces of home that they miss when they live far away,” Rumayor said. “Dogs have an unconditional type of love that also brings them comfort. They don’t know what your rank is, and they don’t care.”

For as hard as Lexy works to help Paratroopers and Soldiers across post, Rumayor makes sure that she also has time to play, either with peers at a doggy-daycare, or by playing with some of the Paratroopers when she brings Lexy along for visits.

Maj. Christina Rumayor (left), 82nd Airborne Division psychiatrist, sits with Staff Sgt. Dennis Swols (right), as he shares his success from one year’s worth of therapy with her and military therapy dog, Lt. Col. Lexy, at Robinson Clinic, May 19. Lexy is Fort Bragg’s first therapy dog and works with Rumayor to provide Soldiers with the comfort of a canine companion. (U.S. Army photo by Spc. Taryn Hagerman, 40th Public Affairs Detachment)

“I make sure she gets time to just be a regular dog,” she said. “She loves to work, but she also loves to play tug or chase the ball.”

Lexy inspires a positive attitude both in and outside of a treatment environment, like when she joined her fellow Soldiers to celebrate All American Week.

Rumayor and Lexy plan to attend more All American Week events so they can continue to cheer-on Paratroopers and boost morale in the way that only Lexy can.

Lexy shows her support for fellow Soldiers in countless ways by offering a kind face to talk to or quiet companionship. But on mornings like this one, she offered even more than that. She was that extra boost that the Troopers needed…and she became the smile on many of their faces as she joined the sea of thousands who ran four miles in the cold to embody esprit de corps.

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