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A childhood ambition come true

By Staff Sgt. Ryan Campbell | 107th Attack Wing | August 07, 2017

HAYESVILLE, N.C. -- Some will greet you joyfully, others will cower and try to hide. Scratches and bites that draw blood are an accepted hazard.

You do your best to keep them calm, holding them to ease their fears. On the other hand, this embrace might result in some friendly licks to the face.

Cats and dogs of different breeds and sizes stream into the makeshift veterinary office accompanied by their owners. Owners who may offer a hug out of gratitude for giving their pets the health care that they need.

For veterinarians such as Army Capt. Janet Johnston, this can be a typical day of work. It is also more than a job, it's a way for her to serve her country in a way many do not realize exist, in the U.S. Army Veterinary Corps.

“I wouldn’t be surprised about it,” said Johnston. “If you don’t know about veterinary medicine or what we are able to do then yes it can be surprising.”

Being an Army veterinarian is more than just providing services to pets during such training events as the Smoky Mountain Innovative Readiness Training exercise. The IRT which is taking place in Clay and Swain counties in North Carolina has Johnston working out of a makeshift office in a classroom at Hayesville High School, Hayesville.

“A lot of people think veterinarians just do dogs and cats,” said Johnston, taking a break from the more than 50 animals her and others from the 169th Medical Detachment Veterinary Services, Ft. Gordon, Georgia, have seen over the course of three days. “We do food inspection, lab research, aside from treating animals so we have a broad spectrum of what we can do.”

Becoming a veterinarian wasn’t a hard choice for the captain to make. The decision was made early in her childhood when she made a request of her parents.

“When I was five or six I wanted a horse,” said Johnston. “My mom said no, they are too expensive and the vet bills are too high.”

Still, even at a young age she remained undeterred. That is when she had her vision.

“I said, ‘Well mom if I’m the vet can I get a horse then?’,” said Johnston with a smile. “And she said ‘Yeah OK, three of them.’ Of course moms are going to tell you whatever you want to hear, so thats where I developed that drive.”

Nothing else seemed interesting enough to distract her from reaching her goal of becoming a vet. Despite that fact that some of the prerequisites could have led her in other directions.

When applying for a vet program there are standardized tests you have to take, said Johnston. When I applied it was either the Graduate Record Examinations test or the Medical College Admission Test, said Johnston.

Those two tests are also taken when applying for medical school. For some, that can be a tempting career path to take.

“Some people say that if you're going to take the MCAT you might as well go to medical school,” said Johnston. “It comes down to what your priority is, you got to have a passion for veterinary medicine because you don’t make as much money as people assume.”

Going to vet school at Michigan State University, Johnston graduated in 2009. It was while she was in school that her interest in joining the Army began.

“I applied for the Army scholarship,” said Johnston. “We had a recruiter that came in and talked about opportunities, going places, and I love to travel.”

Having a classmate who had already graduated, joined the Army, and had photos of a mission to Africa, the interest was real. Soon, Johnston was accepted for the scholarship.

Situations that were going on with family life put a hold on plans with the Army, said Johnston. I declined as the four year obligation after school wouldn’t work well with the current family life, said Johnston.

Graduating and getting beginning work in the veterinary field, the idea of joining the military would eventually come back. Some advice she followed would ultimately lead to the Army Reserve.

The recruiter explained the benefits of joining the reserves as opposed to active duty, said Johnston. I was able to get into the Army life and still do missions while maintaining my civilian life, and so I joined in 2011, said Johnston.

Since joining, Johnston has not only helped animals, but the people around her as well. Soldiers new to the veterinary field in the Army have had the chance to learn from her.

“She’s awesome, she is very willing to train and show me new stuff,” said Spc. Jessica Hurst, a veterinary assistant assigned to the 169th MDVS. “She was right there beside me when I did my first catheter so she’s been great.”

For Hurst, joining the Veterinary Corps also comes from a passion for animals. Having previously been a photographer assigned to combat camera and deployed to Iraq in 2016, she made the decision to switch and has spent the past six months with her new unit.

“As much as I love photography, I like animals more,” said Hurst. “It’s what I want to do in my civilian career whereas photography is more of a hobby and I can always keep it as a hobby.”

As a brand new member to the 169th MDVS, the 14-day IRT is Hurst’s first mission with a veterinary unit. Rather than be overwhelming, it can be just the opposite.

“It’s hectic but fun,” said Hurst. “They have been pulling me from surgery prep to vaccines while asking what happened to a different pet, which is hard, but it’s been great.”

The IRT brings these medical services to underserved communities across the country, several times a year. For the local pet owners to be able to access such care, it has been invaluable.

“I assumed the military had vets,” said Ansley Walker-Pina, owner of a deer-head chihuahua named Tinkerbell, who is in for vaccinations. “Though I didn’t know they would offer services to the public.”

The 169th MDVS was able to offer relief both financially as the services are offered at no-cost through the IRT, and since pets in the community are vaccinated they won’t transmit disease. Very important, especially with how meaningful a pet can be.

“I didn’t know how I was going to afford services for either of my pets,” said Walker-Pina. “They’re family. It means the world for me to see them happy.”

Getting out into communities has been a highlight for Army veterinarians such as Johnston. To be able to help others is the highlight of service.

“Missions like this, honestly,” said Johnston. “Where we can help the community and make a difference while doing my passion are my favorite memories of serving.”

Missions such as this have taken her from Wisconsin to Puerto Rico, to her home state of North Carolina, leaving Johnston with fond memories of the Army experience. Memories that will last after her service eventually ends.
“I got married, we are going to have kids,” said Johnston. “I’m probably going to finish out my contract and then stay home and raise kids.”

Johnston would recommend the Veterinary Corps to anyone with a passion for animals. Though she stresses it has to be for the right person as it is challenging, but will also bring rewards.

“You have be a leader, you have to have drive,” said Johnston. “It’s for people who want to get out and experience life.”
169th Medical Detachment Veterinary Services Army Reserve Medical Command Capt. Janet Johnston Community Engagement Innovative Readiness Training IRT joint forces Smoky Mountain Medical 2017

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