On Patrol

Until every one comes home | The Magazine of the USO

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Army Captain Michelle Nordstrom and Major Butch, a military therapy dog, work together to help troops experiencing stress while serving on the front lines. USO photo by Samantha L. QuigleyArmy Captain Michelle Nordstrom and Major Butch, a military therapy dog, work together to help troops experiencing stress while serving on the front lines. USO photo by Samantha L. QuigleyMajor Butch is a cuddler. You’d never guess it by the name—or by her solemn gaze as she sighs and dozes off on the couch in the 219th Stress Control Team’s Warfighter Restoration Center on Bagram Air Base.

Yes. Butch is a “her.”

Major Butch is a therapy dog. A beautiful black Labrador retriever donated by America’s VetDogs, a nonprofit that trains dogs for all types of purposes. Her handler assures she wasn’t a washout for another type of service.

“She didn’t fail out of any program,” Army Captain Michelle Nordstrom said. “She was never trained for a Seeing Eye dog. It was never initiated. She isn’t from Afghanistan. That’s another common question that I get, is she an Afghan dog or is she from the U.S.”

In fact, she seems to have a real knack for her job.

“She has an innate ability to … figure out who truly, truly likes dogs, who tolerates dogs and who really doesn’t like them,” Nordstrom said. “If someone has a true fear of dogs, she might go over to them to see if they possibly want to pet her, but she’s not going to be really energetic around them.

“And people that are stressed out—if they’re really stressed, but they have that natural aura that they like dogs … she’ll automatically go over to them,” she added.

That’s Major Butch’s job, reduce stress and anxiety in general, and—even though she out ranks her, to open doors for Nordstrom, an occupational therapist. The rank structure is to ensure that if a handler mistreats their dog they can be punished under the Uniform Code of Military Justice.

Nordstrom’s job is to see that troops are living their life to the fullest wherever they’re serving. Sometimes troops on the front lines find it hard to open up about what’s eating at them.

And sometimes, just petting Major Butch for a few minutes helps them let their guard down enough to talk to Nordstrom and learn some coping skills.

“There were a couple of colonels that I’ve run into that she went over and they just melted after playing with her for … maybe 15 minutes. Playing with her is just petting her, hugging her, getting kisses from her,” Nordstrom said. “Then … we’d be sitting down on the ground in the middle of this [contingency operating base] and they would just start talking about, you know, I haven’t slept in four months, I’m stressed out beyond belief. They were very proud of their mission. They were very proud of the work that they did, but their stress and anxiety over everything else has been overwhelming.”

Army Captain Michelle Nordstrom gives a high-five to Major Butch. USO photo by Samantha L. QuigleyArmy Captain Michelle Nordstrom gives a high-five to Major Butch. USO photo by Samantha L. QuigleyButch gave Nordstrom an in with the colonels, and Nordstrom was able to help them manage their stress and sleeplessness.

“[I gave] this one colonel in particular some sleep hygiene tips and some stress management tips and the following day he came and found me again … and he’s like, ‘Wow! I couldn’t do this and this because of these reasons, but I could do these two things and I got a good night’s sleep,’” she said. “It wasn’t a full night’s sleep … but he felt well rested. He was happy, he was energetic and of course, he played with Butch some more.

“During the four days we were there … we did four classes,” Nordstrom said. “The service members didn’t necessarily come because of the classes. They came because they knew Major Butch was going to be there. If you ask them, they’d probably say, ‘Major Butch taught me resiliency,’ or ‘Major Butch taught me sleep hygiene.’”

Nordstrom said Butch’s impact on the troops she meets can have profound and lasting effects. She’s been sought out by people who have met Major Butch two and three weeks later.

“The come up to me and say, ‘You know, I don’t know why, but I needed it that day. It was a bad day and I wanted to do nothing more than run home and get away from here. Just seeing her and hugging her gave me the strength to get through the rest of the day and I still feel better from it.’”

Major Butch has distracted smokers trying to kick the habit long enough that they didn’t give in to their craving and often she’s just a reminder of home. She also honors the fallen just like any other brother-in-arms would do.

She and Nordstrom have attended several memorial services, standing in the back, making themselves available if anyone wants or needs to talk.

“As people are leaving, or if they’re having a hard time and they come back, and I just introduce her. ‘This is Major Butch, she’s a therapy dog and she’s here to be petted and played with,’” Nordstrom said. “Nine times out of 10, they’ll at least give her head a little rub or sit down and either start talking to me or her and forgetting who’s around.

Nordstrom and Major Butch have only been working together since April, but the two hit it off quickly. In fact, Major Butch got a little bit over protective of Nordstrom and had to go through some additional training.

Since getting to theater, the duo tries to spend about half of each month out in the field talking to the troops at the tip of the spear. When they travel, though, they become a three-person team.

Nordstrom won’t travel off Bagram without a secondary handler for Major Butch.

It’s a security precaution.

Since Nordstrom doesn’t have permanent quarters anywhere but on Bagram that means there’s no guaranteed safe place to leave Major Butch if she wants to go to the dining facility or take a shower.

Major Butch, a military therapy dog, can provide a calming influence for troops feeling stress during deployment. USO photo by Samantha L. QuigleyMajor Butch, a military therapy dog, can provide a calming influence for troops feeling stress during deployment. USO photo by Samantha L. QuigleyIntroducing Major Butch to a group can also require a second handler.

“She might go up to a service member, which is how I get to meet [them] … but then they start going into different problems or questions or concerns that they may have,”

Nordstrom said. “Well, if she gets bored in the meantime, or someone else starts calling her … saying, come on over, I want to pet you, I want to play with you, I’ve already given her the command to go make friends. If I don’t have someone else there with me, then I can’t let her go and I would either have to stop her or I’d have to stop the service member. I don’t want to have to stop the service member.”

When Nordstrom and Major Butch are on Bagram, Major Butch is one of the most popular girls on campus. There are plenty of people who stop by the 219th Stress Control Team’s office to see if she’s there.

Often, they’re just looking for that reminder of home that she can provide, or just a little break during a bad day. Occasionally, they’ll need to chat with Nordstrom, too. Regardless the need, the team is there and willing to help.

And if Major Butch’s name is still not making much sense, Nordstrom offered an explanation.

“America’s VetDogs takes donations. For her, I know [the donors] donated $6,000 that goes to her medical care, her housing, her food and her training. So … with the money, they got to name the dog,” she said. “Now, I don’t know if this person named Major Butch just as a joke because they knew she was destined to go to the military, of if they named her Major Butch after an uncle or a dog they had.”

Samantha L. Quigley is the editor in chief of ON★PATROL.