Political convention sheds light on VMATs


NEW YORK-More than 20 Veterinary Emergency Response Team (VMAT) members convened at Madison Square Garden last month, acting as medical detail for security working the Republican National Convention.

NEW YORK—more than 20 veterinary emergency response team (VMAT) members convened at madison square garden last month, acting as medical detail for security working the republican national convention.

VMAT 1 members Greg Carastro, a veterinary technician, and Dr. Robin Stupack examine a dog working for the Metropolitan Transit Authority. Established by the American Veterinary Medical Association, VMAT teams are deployed under the direction of the Department of Homeland Security.

Stationed at key points in New York City's boroughs, including Midtown Manhattan as well as New Jersey, VMAT veterinarians and technicians cared for bomb-sniffing, narcotics and patrol dogs employed during the four-day convention, as well as equine used by mounted police.

While no terrorist attacks occurred, Dr. Cathy Theisen describes the event as "surreal." Stationed just outside Madison Square Garden in what officials call the "frozen zone," the Oxford, Mich., veterinarian and her colleagues cared for dogs working with the U.S. Secret Service, Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF), city police and U.S. Department of Defense.

"It was really an incredible behind-the-scenes look at how security in our country works," Theisen says. "Security was stopping cars, using mirrors, dogs and asking for credentials from celebrities. We were there for something very serious, but it was so strange to be in this military setting and seeing all these famous people go by. I feel so honored; it was an amazing experience."

Duty calls

Theisen's attitude is typical of VMAT members, many of whom signed up for the volunteer emergency team on or after the terrorist attacks of 9/11. Established by the American Veterinary Medical Association in the early 1990s, VMAT teams are headed by the Federal Emergency Management Agency and deployed when disaster strikes.

"I just wanted to serve my country," Theisen says. "The gravity of our role really hit me while walking through Penn Station carrying a gas mask and an auto-injector (designed to administer the antidote to nerve gas). I'm thankful everything went smoothly."

On the job

The enormity of the deployment kept Dr. Robin Stupak focused, she says.

The New York City veterinarian assigned to a second location in Midtown Manhattan says her job was to examine ATF and Secret Service dogs before and after their shifts, making sure the animals stayed healthy and hydrated.

"We did get an emergency call from the Secret Service requesting our presence on scene where they were stationed in front of the Waldorf-Astoria," Stupak says. "We were escorted by police, who stopped traffic and drove on the sidewalks. When we got there, apparently one of the dogs down in a subway was exposed to a hot blast of steam from a release crate. The handler was concerned the dog had inhaled a lot of hot air."

While the dog checked out fine, Stupak says the presence of VMAT afforded the group administrative recognition.

"I think that this particular deployment really put us on the map as far as making our services to the federal government known," she says. "We were basically there for peace of mind, and we were in place and ready to handle any emergency situation. The feedback we received was wonderful."

Developing role

The convention represented the third political outing for VMAT members. In June, VMAT manned the 2004 G8 Summit in Georgia as well as the funeral of President Ronald Reagan.

"There's definitely a need for us to be at these events," says Lyn Garson, a VMAT veterinary technician from Connecticut. "The handlers of these working dogs are very thankful. If anything happens, we're right there to treat them. It gives them a sense of comfort that they can go out and do their jobs."

That was especially evident on Sept. 11, 2001, when Garson joined VMAT at the sight of the World Trade Center disaster in New York.

"When we formed, our focus was natural disasters and providing veterinary care to injured animals," she says. "Ever since the attacks, there's this other realm of responsibility for our team to protect the working dogs that are called to perform security services."

Nature of volunteers

While the VMAT roles change, compassion remains center stage. During the convention, veterinarians and security officials mourned the loss of a German Shepherd with the New Jersey Transit Police. It was the only casualty reported during the event, VMAT Commander Dr. Mark Lloyd says.

"The dog was hit by a car," Lloyd says. "It was a freak accident. We tried to do CPR, but some times there's nothing you can do."

The time donated to caring for the animals revealed the nature of those in the veterinary profession, he adds.

"I personally feel like everyone on our team is somewhat altruistic, interested in animals and serving our country." Lloyd says. "We have our own lives; we have our own businesses. But you get these guys on a task, and they drop what they're doing to serve. They do an incredible job. As time goes on, we're receiving more and more attention."

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