If you've ever wondered what it's like to be a veterinarian or a military professional, you'll be intrigued to know what life is like as both. Elliott Garber, DVM, MPH details what life is like as a veterinarian and active duty officer in the United States Army.
Army Veterinarian: Do You Have What it Takes?
In the same way that the military needs doctors, nurses, and lawyers, it also needs veterinarians. Recall the brave horses used in the cavalry through the ages, and the courageous explosive detection dogs saving lives today. This is an important part of the job, providing top-of-the-line medical and surgical care to military working animals of a variety species.
In order to maintain proficiency for treating military animals, military veterinarians also provide veterinary services to military family pets at bases all over the world. The surgeries performed and illnesses evaluated for a soldier’s pet keep the veterinarian prepared to deal with a sick or injured working dog in a combat environment.
Along with the military animals and family pets, Army veterinarians also play a big role in supporting the public health mission for the community. They work with physicians and preventive medicine experts to develop zoonotic disease prevention strategies, especially focusing on rabies in areas of the world where that is still a serious concern. They also supervise teams of food inspection soldiers who ensure that all the food sold to military service members and their families comes from safe sources and is stored and prepared appropriately.
Army veterinarians may get to travel around the world performing audits on food and beverage manufacturing facilities to make sure that they are following the proper food safety standards. For example, to Ghana for a Coca-Cola bottling plant, to Greece for a pork product plant, and to Israel for a Ben & Jerry’s ice cream plant.
Most new graduate veterinarians spend their first five or six years in the Army performing a combination of the above tasks. Because they are the only clinical veterinarians in the military, they can be assigned to any type of U.S. mission around the world.
Career Opportunities Beyond Veterinary Work
Many Army veterinarians are content to do one or two assignments like this before transitioning back into the civilian world to pursue their own career goals. Most of originally come in through the Health Professions Scholarship Program, which pays tuition and living expenses for one to four years of veterinary school. This program has a three-year active duty service obligation. Other veterinarians come into the Army on their own after graduating from school, often getting a nice loan repayment bonus in exchange for a minimum commitment of three years of service.
Although most end up doing the more routine work described, there are plenty of unique opportunities that early career Army veterinarians can volunteer for. Special Forces vets must be airborne-qualified and often go behind enemy lines to work with local populations on animal health projects that help create goodwill and stabilize dangerous situations. The Navy’s marine mammal program always has several Army veterinarians working alongside their civilian specialist counterparts to provide care for the program’s dolphins and sea lions. Humanitarian missions utilize Army vets in providing veterinary aid to impoverished nations around the world.
The Army also presents some very appealing options for veterinarians who are considering serving a full 20-year career. Through the Long-Term Health Education & Training program, the Army will pay for veterinarians to go back to school for an MPH, Ph.D., or any number of clinical and research-oriented residency programs. There are also board-certified surgeons, radiologists, emergency/critical care specialists, laboratory animal veterinarians, and pathologists in the Veterinary Corps. These specialists perform a wide variety of jobs in both clinical medicine and in research and development. Many of them transition into academia, industry, or private practice after retiring from the military with a full pension and generous benefits package.
Requirements to Be a Military Vet
Army veterinarians have to meet the same standards and physical fitness requirements as all other soldiers. That means that you will be subjected to an evaluation of your medical history and intense medical exam before even being accepted into the Army. They also have to take a physical fitness test four times per year that measures their ability to meet certain minimum requirements for pushups, situps, and a two-mile run.
Finally, their height and weight are measured at each of these tests to ensure that they meet the standard. The requirements are different for men and women, and they also change based on your age.
One of the most important things that Army veterinarians must accept is that they are not ultimately in control of their lives and careers during their time in service. Although you can express your preferences about what assignments you would like and whether or not you want to be deployed to a combat zone, at the end of the day it is always Uncle Sam’s decision to use you how he best sees fit.
The next time someone asks you why there are veterinarians in the Army, you can be as prepared to tell them about the important roles they play in the service of their country.