Story and photo by Andrea Sutherland
As Staff Sgt. Thomas Sager finished his examination of Kelly K513, he patted the dog on the back, steering clear of its muzzled mouth.
“I’ve been ‘mouthed’ a couple times,” said Sager, U.S. Veterinary Command. “At VETCOM, it’s not if but when you get bitten.”
Sager began working at VETCOM in 2004, earning numerous awards for his work.
In December, Sager won noncommissioned officer of the year for the Rocky Mountain District competition. In March, he won NCO of the year at the VETCOM’s Western region competition as well as NCO of the year at VETCOM’s Best Warrior Competition.
Now, he’s preparing to represent VETCOM and take on 12 NCOs from across the Army for the chance to claim the title of “NCO of the Year” at the U.S. Medical Command level, an honor that only a few Soldiers from VETCOM have earned since its activation in 1994.
“I was lucky in (the ‘Best Warrior’) competition,” said Sager, who competed at the VETCOM level twice before. “Winning the next phase would be amazing but the higher up you go, the more honed in everyone is.”
This year’s competition is especially important as it’s the last competition VETCOM will compete in before being realigned to Public Health Command.
“Winning would mean a lot,” Sager said. “Professionally, it gets my name out there and hopefully in the long run, it pays off. Personally, it’s a difficult level to get to. There’s a certain level of pride but it’s about camaraderie.”
Sager said he’s received a lot of help from his fellow NCOs in preparing for the five-day competition, which will test Soldiers’ treatment under fire, medical evacuation, communication and land navigation skills.
“I’ve been really lucky, and I think it’s the NCOs I’ve worked for that set me up for success,” he said.
Sager entered the military at age 30 and was selected to be an animal care specialist, a job that has a lot of applicants but few slots.
“It’s hard to get in,” he said. “It’s very important in theater.”
Under his command, Sager has cared for more than 70 military working dogs, color guard horses and animal mascots, particularly U.S. Air Force Academy’s falcons, and any unit at the Mountain Post that has an animal as its mascot. Sager also manages the veterinary site at Fort Carson and oversees training of animals.
“Being a vet, there’s not a lot of downtime to practice (for the competition),” Sager said. “I have to do a lot of after-hours training.”
Sager’s superiors have noticed his dedication.
“He definitely fits the Army’s ‘total Soldier’ concept,” said Sgt. 1st Class Duke Thach, who works with Sager at VETCOM. “He has a very hard work ethic and knows his job very well.”
Thach, who placed second at the MEDCOM level in 2000, has been helping Sager study and train for the competition.
“We train up on what we know from VETCOM and go through boards, tasks and drills,” Thach said.
Sager estimated he averaged three additional hours each duty day preparing for the five-day competition.
Although his veterinary skills won’t be tested, Sager said the training he’s received throughout his Army career will serve him well both in the competition and in the civilian world.
“I’d like to go to vet school after I get out of the Army,” he said. “It would be good to have (Doctor of Veterinary Medicine) by my name.”