By Caleb Mynatt
It was in March of 2018 when Ch. Dr. Maj Christina Pittman decided it was time to try something different.
As a Cooperative Baptist Fellowship-endorsed chaplain at the McEntire Joint National Guard Base in South Carolina, Pittman is no stranger to ministering to others struggling with grief. But following the loss of a member of the maintenance crew at the base, Pittman needed to find another way to break through the atmosphere of grief at the base.
As a part of a program called Mental Health Integration in Chaplain Services (MHICS), Pittman was exposed to a variety of combinations of mental health and spiritual care projects. One that interested her was pet therapy; so one day she brought two puppies and a bangle cat to work. The results were astounding.
“The mood in the shop lifted as the excitement and engagement with the dogs brought new life and opened lines of communication,” said Pittman. “I knew then that animal visits needed to continue, and I began to set goals to develop assistance dog integration.”
Through that same MHICS program, the opportunity to acquire a service dog to be embedded into the unit came quickly following the incredible results. After applying and filling out paperwork, Pittman was matched with a dog named Avalon. Then, after completing a 10-day training process as a team, Pittman’s partnership with Avalon began.
“The opportunity just kind of fell into my lap,” said Pittman.
Avalon isn’t just amazing at her job; she was born for it. Although she is specially trained and bred as a service dog, she was actually picked as the match for Pittman and the job because of her personality. Her temperament, according to Pittman, makes her incredibly effective at the job. “She’s extremely loving, has an incredible work ethic and fits well into the military setting,” said Pittman.
Avalon brings a lot to the team, but the thing she does the best is get people to open up. Avalon can get close to people and provide comfort in the way that Pittman can’t because of the constraints of military etiquette. Avalon changes the environment of military chaplaincy, even when service members may not want to share their stories. Avalon and Pittman are such an effective team because their unique gifts complement each other.
“She helps engage and break down and reach people through that toughness and military bearing,” said Pittman. “In uniform, we aren’t really to touch or hug, and that can be a barrier. Avalon is able to get close to people and break through that otherwise normal boundary.”
Just as Pittman has grown throughout her career, she can tell Avalon is doing the same. She has come into an awareness and comfort level with people in uniform and knows those are the people she is meant to care for. According to Pittman, she acts like everyone in uniform belongs to her. To her, everyone in uniform is her best friend.
“She has transitioned into knowing her work in her field,” said Pittman. “She’s friendly out in the public, but she’s different on the base and in uniform. She possesses this essence about her that shows that she belongs there.”
The success of the implementation of pet therapy is just another example of the incredible work Pittman has done as a chaplain. Due to the variety of stressors that exist in a military setting, being a military chaplain can be one of the most difficult jobs in the entire profession. Everyone’s struggle can be different; but that’s something that Pittman takes in stride in her chaplaincy.
“She’s a phenomenal military chaplain,” said Renée Owen, CBF’s Endorser and Director of Chaplaincy and Pastoral Counseling. “She meets people where they are in their journeys. She genuinely cares, and is passionate about journeying with the service members and their families.”
For Owen, Pittman’s story of success is an example of the power of pet therapy. Owen believes it is an extremely effective approach to chaplaincy and hopes that other chaplains will consider trying it in their practices, regardless of setting.
“I think pet therapy can be effective no matter what setting it is in, and I love that Christina has been able to implement it into her unique setting,” said Owen. “I am familiar with pet therapy from hospital chaplaincy, but I had never considered it in a military setting. It can create a warm, welcoming environment and offer that unconditional love I think only a pet can offer.”