BLUEFIELD — Local elementary school students recently had the opportunity to participate in a nationwide program to bring joy to deployed military dogs and their handlers.
The Military Working Dog Team Support Association, Inc. (MWDTSA) is an all-volunteer, nationwide non-profit organization that sends quarterly care packages to the United States military working dog teams while they are deployed overseas.
The students at Dudley Elementary School and Bluefield Intermediate recently provided drawings and notes of encouragement that have been packed into military care packages that are being shipped to global combat zones.
“These students have the chance to impact lives that are halfway across the globe, to make a military member smile and remind them that they are not alone,” Nikki Rohrig, MWDTSA president, said.
Each care package includes comfort items for both the dog and the handler, such as personal care items, collapsible dog bowls and artwork.
“We always like to include letters and drawings from our stateside supporters,” Rohrig said. “ Sometimes our care packages might be the only pieces of mail that they receive throughout their deployment, so it is important for our teams to know that there are adults and children back home that are thinking about them.”
Rohrig, who is based in Charleston, said the organization ships 200 boxes per quarter to active military working dog teams. The contents of the box is worth about $120 and about 90 percent is donated.
Other items in the package include dog treats and toys that bring joy for the dogs, while the handlers are given snacks, coffee and thermometers. Rohrig said that in the conditions these teams are living in, it is very important for the handlers to keep an eye on their dog’s temperature.
In addition, MWDTSA sends “Rex Specs Eye Goggles” to protect the dog’s eyes from the sand and wind at the deployment locations. Rohrig described these goggles as a kind of ski goggle for the dogs.
“We always get really positive feedback,” she said. “What we put in the box is all related to the reactions of the handlers which pulls the stateside visit into play, so we are able to ask what they get and what they want and we try to send them things that are useful.”
The “stateside visits” that Rohrig referred to are part of the MWDTSA program. They visit military working dog kennels in the United States to meet some of the dogs before their deployment and find out more about what items they can actually use.
“I have been a volunteer for about five years, and we were founded in 2006,” Rohrig said, adding that aside from care packages, the stateside kennel visits help boost morale. “We will take them t-shirts, coffee, dog toys and more...”
MWDTSA helps supplement what the deployed teams are already receiving from their “home kennel,” family and friends.
“Aside from letting them know that someone at home is thinking about them and wants the best for them, we help supplement them with items they cannot find while they are away,” Rohrig said. “We have several teams that are not even on a base, they are just out there. Whatever they receive in our care packages need to be fully functional for them. When they receive something like dog shampoo or wipes for themselves, it means a lot because they sometimes do not have access to showers and it is important to keep their dogs clean and healthy.”
In a further gesture of goodwill, MWDTSA provides a different kind of care package to retired military working dogs. These boxes include more toys and treats in addition to some specialty items for senior dogs like joint supplements. Items shown in social media posts include personalized collars, bandanas, and treats that say, “thank you for your service.”
The soldiers who receive the packages send their thanks through social media posts or email.
“We work for smiles and we work for tail wags,” Rohrig said. “It makes my day to get a video of a dog playing with a squeaky toy because I packed that and sent it across the ocean and it is a really great thing.”
Schools are a big part of the MWDTSA program. The drawings and letters included in the packages are sourced from participating schools.
“Even though they (the soldiers) may not be from this area it is still good to see them having a younger generation supporting what they are doing,” Rohrig said. “The kids’ artwork and letters are always my favorite part of each box because kids are so cheerful and have a positive outlook. So to see kids having written, ‘thank you’ or ‘I love you,’ it is just really great to see kids involved.”
Rohrig’s parents, Kenneth Bales and Theresa Battlo Bales are retired McDowell County School teachers. Kenneth Bales taught at Mount View High School as a special education teacher and the assistant football coach while Theresa Bales taught elementary school. They were visiting their daughter when she told them about the program and immediately wanted to help local students get involved.
“When she mentioned it, we had done it before and she talked about how much the soldiers like getting things from back home and since I do volunteer work at both schools we wanted to do it,” Kenneth Bales said. “My wife printed the coloring sheets and the principals and students loved the idea of doing all of this stuff.”
He praised Dudley Elementary School and Bluefield Intermediate for their willingness and enthusiasm to participate in the program. He approached the principals and teachers and they loved the idea and the students were excited. According to a press release, when asked to participate in these care packages, the schools jumped at the chance.
The students thoroughly enjoyed drawing, coloring and writing letters that will be received by almost 200 MWD teams in the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps. All drawings and notes were tucked into the MWDTSA care package and mailed out on May 11.
For more information, or to donate, visit MWDTSA’s social media pages on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. The organization also accepts donations in the form of cash, PayPal or Facebook fundraisers. In addition, the organization has an Amazon.com “wish list” where items can be purchased and automatically shipped to MWDTSA for packaging. All of this information and more can be found on their website at mwdtsa.org.
— Contact Emily Rice at email@example.com and follow her on Twitter @BDTrice