America Supports You: Group Cares for Deployed Troops' Cats
By Monique Reuben
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, June 2, 2006 Staff Sgt. Aeyne Anne M. Dizicksa's cats are her family, so their welfare was her top priority when she faced deployment.
Sweet Magnolia rests on the dryer in the home of Susan Hagrelius, her foster owner of more than a year. The 8-year-old cat will soon reunite with her owner, Staff Sgt. Aeyne Anne M. Dizicksa, a deployed Army reservist in the 719th Veterinary Medical Detachment who will return later this month. Courtesy photo
(Click photo for screen-resolution image)
"I knew that if I had them to return to, everything else was irrelevant - just another passing episode in my life," Dizicksa said.
Operation Noble Foster, an organization launched in response to the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the United States, has provided more than 3,000 deployed servicemembers with individual foster homes for their cats until they return. The operation is a member of the Defense Department's America Supports You program, which showcases Americans' efforts to support servicemembers and their families.
"The response was amazing," said Linda P. Mercer, director of Operation Noble Foster. "It still is."
Mercer said she created the program to avoid a repeat of the situation that existed 15 years ago when many servicemembers deployed for operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm had no choice but to place their cats in shelters, many of which were overcrowded.
"It seemed to me that there was a way to avoid that," Mercer said.
Using a private, interactive database that military personnel can search online, the group coordinates foster care for military people's cats. The database lists volunteers who are willing to serve as temporary caregivers for the cats until their owners return.
The organization does not screen the volunteers, but it does provide advice regarding screening and other services such as spaying and neutering, which make it easier for interested military personnel to locate homes for their cats.
Mercer described the system as beneficial to both servicemembers and foster volunteers. "(Servicemembers) get to keep their family together," Mercer said. "The foster families really feel like they are helping. ... They say, 'I want to foster again, it was a great experience.'"
Many servicemembers make their own pet-care arrangements, but Mercer noted that plans sometimes change. A family member initially willing to provide care may turn out to be unable to do so for any number of reasons, or a servicemember breaking up with a significant other could prompt a need for a foster home.
With just a few days' notice before her activation in January 2005, Dizicksa discovered Operation Noble Foster. A widow with no children, she needed suitable caregivers for her dogs and cats, which her friends and family members couldn't provide.
"While the military tries extremely hard to avoid short-term notice for long-term deployments such as I received, it sometimes happens," Dizicksa said.
After learning of Dizicksa's dilemma, Susan Hagrelius of Cary, Ill., provided a happy home for Sweet Magnolia, one of Dizicksa's cats.
"The best part is knowing that I'm able to take care of somebody's pet while they are serving our country," Hagrelius said.
Dizicksa, a certified veterinary technician, spent a year in Heidelberg, Germany, and six months in Belgium. As a reservist, she is an animal care specialist who works in veterinary treatment facilities.
In civilian life, she is an Internal Revenue Service agent. She plans to return home later this month.
While she's been activated, Dizicksa said, her pets have served as a symbol of what her normal life was and will be again and the good things she can return to.
Before becoming a foster care provider for the program, Hagrelius and Mercer volunteered with the Cat Fancier's Association Purebred Rescue Committee, an organization that promotes purebred cats and rescues cats from unsafe living conditions by placing them up for adoption.
Operation Noble Foster also assists members of the armed forces in other ways when possible. According to Mercer, a soldier lost his cat while traveling through Utah to a base in California. The cat was found, and Operation Noble Foster arranged for it to be transported back to the soldier's family in California at no cost.
Since Operation Noble Foster was introduced almost five years ago, more than 5,000 people have volunteered to foster cats. Mercer said she expects that number to increase as the public discovers the need for this resource and servicemembers realize that it exists to support them while they are away serving our country.
"I want every single military person to know it's there ... that's our goal," Mercer said. "We need to get the word out."