Sara Rose Knox, DVM, says she has the best of both worlds being a captain in the Army Veterinary Corps. She has always enjoyed working with animals and she knew early on she wanted to combine that with the military.
“There is no Ground Hog Day being a veterinarian in the Army, especially in a deployed environment,” she says. “Every day is different. You never know what’s going to walk through the door.”
SaraRose Knox, DVM, is a captain in the Army Veterinary Corps.
Dr. Knox is deployed in Afghanistan, where she cares for military working dogs. Tours are generally about a year and there is typically one veterinarian at each base, she says. Knox’s responsibilities include preventive, medical and emergency care as well as processing dogs entering or leaving the country.
She also works with health care providers and emergency medical personnel in teaching emergency canine trauma care classes. This includes teaching military handlers basic canine first aid, such as bandaging and stabilizing fractures.
In addition, Knox deals with public health issues, such as rabies prevention, and helps with food inspection. Knox, along with a team, helps make sure all provisions coming into the country for the soldiers are safe and in the right condition.
“I do it all,” she says.
Knox says she has a very good setup when it comes to veterinary equipment availability: surgery capabilities, dental treatments, X-rays, ultrasound, endoscopy and blood and other laboratory work. She even has a veterinary ambulance. Support from the human facilities is also an asset, she says.
Due to security concerns Knox was unable to speak about the specific roles of the working dogs she is in contact with, but she says they play a significant role.
“On the work side, dogs have been a critical part in our war fighting experience since World War I and even before,” she says. “They have numerous capabilities. They are willing to go out and give the ultimate sacrifice for their handlers and their unit.”
Then there’s the personal side of it. When a unit sees a working dog, their morale is instantly increased, she says. They are not allowed to play with the dogs, but just having them there makes a difference, she says. The unit also has a therapy dog that goes around and visits soldiers to help combat stress.
Dr. Knox soaks Mocha's paws.
Knox says that a lot of people may think that veterinarians in the military don’t have the type of experience that a civilian veterinarian could have, such as developing a close doctor-client bond. But Knox says she gets that, too. The handlers are not owners of these dogs but they are like a brother, she explains.
“The handlers have a huge bond [with the dogs], therefore, they have a bond with me,” she says. “They want the best for their dogs. Their dogs are their most important thing out here. When [the dog] gets sick, they cry. When something happens to [the dog], it’s devastating to these handlers.”
‘The Best of Both Worlds’
Like many veterinarians, Knox knew she wanted to be a veterinarian at a young age. She places the defining decision at about age 7.
“I went from wanting to be a horse jockey to wanting to be a veterinarian,” she says. “I’ve always had a thing for animals.”
Knox didn’t have any pets growing up but she remembers her neighbor’s dog, Penny, which she would often play with.
In high school, she worked as a kennel attendant at a local veterinary clinic in Sturbridge, Mass., where she eventually became a technician.
While animals had captivated her interest, a draw to the military was also tugging from within. Both her grandfathers were in the military, one in the Army and one in the Navy.
Dr. Knox put on a bite sleeve for a demonstration. “It was fun,” she says.
Knox joined the Army Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) as an undergrad in September 2001, one week before 9/11, at Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Worcester, Mass. It was the same year she started attending nearby Becker College, where she later earned an associate’s degree in veterinary technology and a bachelor’s degree in animal science.
As soon as she joined ROTC, Knox says she looked into how to become a veterinarian.
“I wanted the best of both worlds,” Knox says.
She didn’t want to sacrifice her dream of joining the military to be a veterinarian and vice versa. And she knew it was possible to do both.
In 2005, she was placed on an educational delay to attend veterinary school, which meant that she would postpone going into active duty to attend vet school. Once she graduated, she would be recommissioned as a veterinary officer.
Knox graduated from Mississippi State University’s College of Veterinary Medicine in 2010.
Would the military experience have better prepared her for vet school? She answers, “Yes.”
“I don’t think I would have gotten into veterinary school if it weren’t for the military experience that I had,” she says.
The ROTC provided different experiences that she wouldn’t have normally had, she says. For example, ROTC helped strengthen her leadership and decision-making skills and master multi-tasking. She even completed mock missions and jumped out of planes.
“[ROTC] broadened my horizons,” she says.
Jody Ray, DVM, who was Knox’s senior adviser at MSU, says this was quite apparent.
“She had developed a maturity that a lot of students don’t have,” Dr. Ray says. “She was here to learn so she could develop herself better.”
Ace, one of the biggest dogs in the kennel, is also one of Dr. Knox’s favorites. She had to perform a tail amputation on him.Photos courtesy of Dr. SaraRose Knox
Knox also had very good people skills, something most students develop over a period of time, he says.
“It makes me proud that she is serving our country,” Ray says. “She’s a true ambassador for Mississippi State as well as the United States.”
Most people know that post-traumatic stress disorder can afflict service men and women, but it can also be apparent in military dogs, Knox says.
“As dogs are becoming more and more involved in our war fighting experience—whether they are patrol dogs, working dogs or bomb dogs—they experience the same things we do and they get nervous as well,” Knox says.
The New York Times in early December ran an article on this very topic. More than 5 percent of the approximately 650 military dogs deployed by American combat forces are developing canine PTSD, according to the newspaper.
Knox says she sees some PTSD symptoms in dogs but it’s not something they diagnose in country. As in humans, it takes a while to diagnose it, she says. However, she notes that they have a dog behaviorist who deals with various behavior issues in the working dogs, including potential PTSD.
“It’s a new area we are studying,” she says. “We’ve dedicated a lot of time and education on it. We get constant reminders of what to look for, how to start preliminary treatment and then where to send them if [they need help]. These dogs are considered just like military members, and they get the same care that we do.”
As for the future, Knox says that she would like to one day go into veterinary emergency medicine as a civilian.
“I don’t know if it’s because I’m an adrenaline junkie or what,” she says, “but I think this experience over here has helped prepare me for anything.”
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