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Sailors aboard USS George Washington visit with pups on a mission for mental health

U.S. Navy Sailors hangout with a Mutts with a Mission service dog aboard the USS George Washington at Naval Station Norfolk on Thursday, July 13, 2023. (Kendall Warner/The Virginian-Pilot/TNS)

Machinist’s mate Isiah Nathan, 19, was one of several sailors on the USS George Washington who stepped away from their duties Thursday to pet the visitors from Mutts with a Mission.

Tucked in a corner of a cavernous area, the dogs and their trainers greeted crewmembers who gave the puppies a quick cuddle or a pat before heading to lunch, receiving new equipment or completing other work. Mutts with a Mission is Hampton Roads’ only accredited service dog provider, and the visit was one of the steps the Navy has taken recently to improve morale on the ship.

Nathan’s favorite was Poseidon, a 4-month-old that reminded him of his dog back home in Louisiana. He joined the ship in March, at the tail end of its six years at Newport News Shipbuilding. He was concerned about working on such a large ship, and he knew it had been through difficult times. There have been nine suicides among its crew dating to 2017, including three in one week in April 2022. But the ship and its crew quickly earned his admiration.

Nathan’s pride was evident as he turned to look up at the massive mural painted above the mingling dogs and sailors.

“Every day, I find something new to love,” he said.

Camaraderie has increased with efforts to improve morale, from popular karaoke nights to an upcoming summer picnic for which leadership has reserved a waterpark. But nothing has had a bigger impact, he and others said, than finally getting out of the shipyard. The USS George Washington was redelivered May 25 to the Navy at Naval Station Norfolk.

“I can see people are more lifelike,” he said, “There are more smiles.”

Stuart Reckseit, a 2nd Class air traffic controller who has been with the Washington for two years, said the change in the crew’s dynamic was immediate.

“I saw a lot of people being like, ‘We’re never getting out of here,’” he said. Now that they’ve left the shipyard, they can finally perform the jobs they trained to do, rather than helping out with maintenance and other support tasks.

The warship reached another important milestone when it completed its flight deck certification June 30. It was the first time the ship and the airwing have operated together since the overhaul.

As for the dogs, Leckseit said, their periodic visits always brighten crew members’ days.

“Who doesn’t want to pet a puppy?” he said.

Jo Ofeldt, the organization’s volunteer coordinator, said Mutts with a Mission has made over 70 visits to the fleet this year and has been to the six aircraft carriers on the East Coast at least once.

“You come on a ship and you just hear comments from people like ‘I’ve never seen so many smiling faces,’” Ofeldt said. “People come in who weren’t scheduled to work that day, just to see the dogs.” Participants report substantial improvement in their mental health in surveys sent out after the events, she said.

The nonprofit has even started a pilot program to bring canines aboard deployed warships. Sage, a 3-year-old female yellow Labrador retriever, is deployed aboard the USS Gerald R. Ford. Another yellow Lab, 2-year-old Ike, has been assigned to amphibious assault ship USS Wasp for its next deployment. When dogs join the ships, mental health professionals are assigned as their handlers.

A visit with the dogs often improves sailors’ mental health by itself — but there’s also been a substantial increase in crew members’ interactions with mental health professionals, Ofeldt said. Whether the canine affection is the draw or the excuse, it seems to have made it easier for sailors to reach out for support.

The Washington hasn’t been assigned a crew dog, but Mutts with a Mission’s visits — which chaplains and resilience counselors often attend — support building a scaffolding for mental health, according to Command Master Chief Randy Swanson, who joined the ship in November.

“The majority of our crew is green,” Swanson said of the roughly 2,900 sailors.

Supporting quality of life and morale needs to be part of everyday operations and is essential to military readiness, he said; there’s no “mission accomplished” when it comes to mental health.


© 2023 The Virginian-Pilot

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