INCIRLIK AIR BASE, Turkey --
The Air Force mission relies on the dedicated work of all its members and it takes considerable effort to keep the force fit to fight, all the more so if your patients can’t speak. However, there are a pair of U.S. Army specialists at Incirlik Air Base that are there specifically for them.
“I’ve always wanted to be the person that took care of those that can’t speak for themselves,” said Army Capt. Freelie Mitchell, Incirlik Veterinary Services chief.
“It pulled at my heartstrings as a kid, how they responded to that little bit of love and engagement, and I wanted to be there to help,” said Army Staff Sgt. Devon Modrak, Incirlik Veterinary Services non-commissioned officer in-charge.
Veterinary work is a rewarding passion for Incirlik’s vet specialists and while the job can bring challenges, they say it’s worth it and something they’ve long since committed to doing.
“I grew up on a hobby farm as a child and was a caretaker of calves, chickens, goats, cats and dogs,” said Mitchell. “From those moments being a caretaker was when I developed the feeling around age seven that I wanted to do this for the rest of my life, or as long as I can.”
“My house always had animals living with us, but we didn’t always have the money for vet care, so we learned how to do some of it ourselves,” said Modrak. “I became fascinated with animal care and when we did go to the vet I’d ask so many questions; why are you doing that? What does this do? Can I help? I knew then it’s what I wanted to do.”
Both of them joined the U.S. Army veterinary corps to pursue their dreams, yet both quickly discovered the harder aspects of the work that weighs heavily on them to this day.
“My first rotation in emergency and critical care training, every day for three weeks, we had an animal code,” said Mitchell. “What that means is basically, well … they die. A lot of people will tell you to leave work at work and then go home to be with your family, but that's not always something you can do.”
“My first assignment also had a stray facility with about 100 animals a month coming in and only three days to get them a home or they would be euthanized,” said Modrak. “We were euthanizing up to a dozen dogs and cats a day, all day, every day, so that really weighed on me.”
No amount of professionalism can take away the sting of loss when a fellow Soldier or Airman dies, be they human or animal, so Mitchell and Modrak both struggled searching for ways to push through the hardship and find the good in the work they love.
“I learned to balance it with a rotation that was just good for my heart, such as general practice first puppy visits,” said Mitchell. “It’s extremely important to have those relationships where you can talk about the bad and good days, to be there and say, ‘You know, you're a great doctor, you're a wonderful human being … these things happen and you don’t have to carry everything on your shoulders.’”
“I've been in and out of mental health throughout my whole career, just to check-in [with] where my head was at,” said Modrak. “We don’t talk about the bad stuff, we keep it behind closed doors, because nobody wants to hear the sad stray stories, or the abuse cases that vets deal with. So you definitely build ties to people you work with because they go through it with you too. You can be with them and say that's all we could have done, we couldn't have done more.”
The veterinary clinic at Incirlik is a humble affair, but these two Soldiers are vital to the Incirlik mission in multiple ways, working to keep both the four-legged and two-legged Airmen healthy.
Working alongside the 39th Medical Group Public Health office, the vets also provide expertise on food facility inspections to ensure safe and healthy products are provided. They also consult with the base’s stray facility to advise on capture and handling methods as well as educate new Airmen and civilians on the dangers of approaching wild animals, and help the medical group with bite and scratch cases that occur.
The vet field is small, with a little over 500 animal care specialists in the whole Army, and Incirlik was fortunate to employ Modrak and Mitchell who are deeply devoted to providing medical care for the military working dogs, unit mascots and pets on base.
“There's just two of us and it's a lot to handle,” said Modrak. “This base is lucky to have personnel that actually care, as it's all about how much you put into it. If you have that passion and dedication to the people, the mission, the base, the animals and you make it work … it’s wonderful to see.”
“Medicine is not a profession for everyone,” said Mitchell. “There are many struggles in it and it’s often a thankless job, but you know when they walk out the door feeling better … there's this healing inside yourself that you helped someone, and that makes all the difference.”