Camp Lejeune Prisoners Train Dogs for Wounded Marines Peter Biello
WILMINGTON, NC (2008-06-27) Prisoners at the Camp Lejeune Marine Base Brig are doing something no military prisoners in the US have done before: they're training dogs to help Marines wounded in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. The dogs will perform more than seventy different tasks for their disabled owners, and for their able-bodied trainers, the dogs perform another service.
Twenty-three year old Mark wakes up at oh-five-hundred in the long, hollow bedroom he shares with nearly a dozen other prisoners in the brig at Camp Lejeune. Brig rules won't allow us to use Mark's last name. Along side his narrow cot is a cage, and inside that cage is Mark's constant companion, a black Lab mutt named Roxy.
Mark and another prisoner take care of Roxy. Mark is one of a select few prisoners enrolled in a special program guided by Carolina Canines, a dog-training company based in Wilmington.
"Being an inmate here, you constantly think about what you did. And it creates a nagging thought in the back of your head that's always there," Mark says. "But having someone like Roxy be a companion for you and reciprocate the love back to you, it takes your mind off those thoughts."
Someday Roxy will serve Marines injured in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. And don't call what Roxy does tricks. Mark says he and his partner have been teaching her skills.
"She can retrieve items really good. She's just learning to retrieve clothing items and put them in the laundry basket and put them in the washing machine. She's just now learning to mess with the light switch, turn it on and off."
Trainers from Carolina Canines visit the brig a few times a week to guide lessons and dole out homework assignments. Outside in the brig's fenced-in courtyard, trainer Vicky Wilcox shouts instructions to Marines dressed head-to-toe in their orange brig-issued jumpsuits.
"You wanna just tuck your leash in your pouch and use yourself and your little cookies to motivate your dog to stay with you."
Rick Hairston, president of Carolina Canines, says the program is a way for these Marines to atone for what they've done. And because they're able to make good use of their time behind bars, Hairston says he's noticed that these Marines are the only ones in the whole brig who smile.
"They've got a chance to do some things that nobody else is doing, and so they have a new leash on life, so to speak."
Eventually the dogs will be able to open refrigerators and complete bank transactions for their wounded owners. Those skills are hard to learn, so the dogs practice an easier exercise, a slow, careful walk through an obstacle course made of white plastic pipes.
And before they go back inside the brig for more training, the Marines lead all the dogs to the chain link fence surrounding the courtyard. Then, on command, it's business time.
"They're all in sync?" I ask.
"They're taught to go potty on command," Hairston explains.
"Not together at the same time."
"But that's what they were doing, right?"
"They were just given the command at the same time," Hairston says. "Thing is, you get ready to go on an airplane, you go to the bathroom, right? These dogs can't. So they have to totally eliminate before they get on an aircraft."
Once inside the brig, Roxy's trainer Mark puts her in a harness. Then a Marine in a wheelchair grabs the harness, and with a little encouragement, Roxy pulls him across the smooth brig floor. For her next lesson, Roxy learns how to pull a laundry basket.
Mark's face beams with pride as he watches Roxy practice. He says in a place where life can be drab and depressing, Roxy makes him feel alive.
"We messed up. But at least we can do something productive with our time while we're in here. And it's going to benefit a life of someone who really needs it."
Mark says Roxy might be the first to complete the program this summer. When he gets out of the brig in a few months, he says he wants to train service dogs for a living. Mark says he'll miss Roxy, but it's comforting to know she'll be helping a wounded Marine who needs her.
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