Marine Corps veteran and University of Tennessee, Knoxville, veterinary medicine graduate Kate Stanford is finally realizing her childhood dream of caring for animals, but she never imagined the detours she would take on the path to get there.
After graduating from high school, she put her plans to become a veterinarian on hold because she felt a stronger pull to serve her country. The terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, which had occurred during her eighth grade year, motivated her to join the military.
Stanford entered as a military police officer and began the rigorous 20-week academy. While she was being recruited, she had seen a poster of military job specialties and one in particular piqued her interest.
“One of them was a military police dog handler,” she said. “When I went through school they said raise your hand if you’re interested in going the canine route, if you want to be a dog handler. And I raised my hand, not expecting anything to happen.” The very next day she was on her way to becoming a military dog handler.
It was the path that would eventually lead Stanford to graduate from UT with her Doctor of Veterinary Medicine degree later this month. She will continue her education through an internship this fall in UT’s small animal physical rehabilitation service, a worldwide leader in its field.
“She is overflowing with compassion for her patients but also a level of experience not often observed in veterinary students as a result of her time as a canine handler in the Marine Corps,” said Marti Drum, clinical associate professor and the service’s chief. “Her experience as a military working dog handler has helped her see the bigger picture in veterinary medicine and fostered a confidence and humility that she taps into when communicating with clients, staff, and other veterinarians.”
Although she built a career around dogs, Stanford never claimed to be a dog person.
At the UT College of Veterinary Medicine, she got involved with Feral Fixin’, a regular event spaying and neutering community cats through the college’s Companion Animal Initiative of Tennessee. The event offers students experience in high-volume, high-quality spay and neuter surgeries.
“I got the experience learning different species that I don’t necessarily want to work with for my career, but the fact that I got to work with them really broadens my medical knowledge,” she said.
From Serving around the World to Making Knoxville Home
For eight years, Stanford handled military working dogs trained to conduct searches of open areas, buildings, and vehicles for explosives or illegal drugs. Her work brought opportunities to provide security for the president and other heads of state and to visit Iwo Jima for the 70th anniversary celebration of the battle of Iwo Jima. But after years of service, Stanford and her husband, a fellow military dog handler, were looking for a change.
Once settled in Cocke County, Tennessee, the couple got involved with the veteran community through Disabled American Veterans. In between her studies, Stanford wrote claims to the US Department of Veterans Affairs for service-related injuries and disabilities for veteran community members. She and her husband worked on home repairs, cleaned up yards, and delivered meals to those needing support.
“I wanted to get involved where I can have some of the biggest impact. I can raise money for Cocke County veterans, for the Disabled American Veterans, and see immediate results in my community. And then once they’re back on their feet, they come back to the DAV and say ‘Hey, you guys helped me in my time of need—what can I do now to help somebody else?’ There’s a great coming together of veterans in the community when we helped them, and now they see the good that happens.”
Rehabbing the Working Dog
Along with helping retired military officers, the Stanfords began adopting retired military working dogs. One of them was Rocky, a German shepherd who was suffering from a spinal condition. Already a veterinary student, Stanford took Rocky to UT’s small animal physical rehabilitation service.
Stanford saw firsthand the impact physical rehabilitation could have on elderly dogs. “The quality of life difference between physical therapy and none for these dogs is incredible, and I just wanted to be a part of that,” she said.
Once she began clinical rotations in the rehab service alongside Senior Veterinary Technician Dawn Hickey, it was clear that she had found her calling.
“I knew she was very smart. But I had no idea what a good student she was until she worked with us,” explained Hickey, who worked with the Stanfords during Rocky’s rehabilitation. “I never had to question her. You know, I had to teach her some things but I never had a question about her work ethic.”
Stanford will continue working with UT’s service this fall as she begins a specialty internship in small animals sports medicine and rehabilitation.
“I think that the PT program is a great way to give back to the dogs that have given so much to us. It stems outside the working dog community to pets that have been livestock guardian dogs or that have been in car accidents or get neurologic injuries like slipped discs. Every dog can benefit from some PT, but the dogs of my heart are the working dogs, and giving them a good quality retirement after they stop working is incredibly important to me.”
This spring the university will award approximately 5,250 degrees and certificates—3,816 undergraduate degrees, 1,229 graduate degrees and certificates, 122 law degrees, and 83 veterinary medicine degrees. Additionally, 14 Air Force ROTC cadets and 23 Army ROTC cadets will be commissioned.
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