VMI Chaplain’s Office Grows by Four Feet

CAVU enjoys attention from cadets at VMI.

CAVU enjoys attention from cadets after a practice parade in May.

LEXINGTON, Va., June 24, 2024—The chaplain’s office at 麻豆区 Institute recently welcomed a new staff member in the form of a warm, furry, and faithful facility dog named CAVU. Facility dogs assist people to cope after a traumatic event or overly stressful environment. CAVU’s occupational specialty is to assist the Institute chaplain in bringing morale, welfare, and care to cadets, especially those who are faced with upsetting news or painful issues, like the death of a family member.

The two-year old golden lab was trained by Mutts With a Mission (MWAM), a nonprofit located in Virginia Beach, Virginia, and accredited through Assistance Dogs International (ADI), the world leader in the service dog industry. MWAM prepares service dogs for disabled veterans, first responders, and law enforcement. Facility dogs undergo the same rigorous training that service dogs go through, but instead of helping an individual with a disability, facility dogs ultimately help multiple people. They are often placed with police departments and courtrooms to assist with victims having to testify. Donations to MWAM fully cover the nearly $60,000 price tag of training each dog, so there is no cost to any recipient.

Col. John P. Casper ’04, Institute chaplain at VMI, first learned of MWAM about a year-and-a-half ago while he was associate chaplain. Project Horizon hosted an event on post to bring awareness to victims of sexual assault, and brought their facility dog with them. “Seeing how the dog was interacting with everyone, and the impact it made at Project Horizon, I thought a dog like that could make a huge impact with cadets,” said Casper.

When Casper was promoted to Institute chaplain last July, he was encouraged to think outside the box for fresh ideas in his ministry. “I thought about it for a little while and knew I had an out-of-the-box idea. I was aware of other facility dogs placed with colleges and floated the idea to General Wins. We invited Brooke Corson, executive director of MWAM, to visit post, and she agreed a facility dog would be a great addition for us. We then started the process for approval, which took about a year,” he explained.

Providentially, along the same time the idea of bringing a facility dog to VMI first sparked in Casper’s mind, a puppy was undergrowing his two-year training. The pup, along with seven others, spent a large portion of his training on the aircraft carrier, USS George H.W. Bush, which is where he received his unusual name from the servicemembers stationed aboard. CAVU is an acronym for Ceiling and Visibility Unlimited, a term commonly used among Navy pilots, which means flying conditions are ideal. “In the Navy, we young pilots all prayed for CAVU. But, you see, that is where my life is now. Thanks to my family and my friends, my life is CAVU,” said the late President Bush on his 80th birthday.

Casper explained that because so many of the dogs were to be placed with first responders and veterans, having them trained in a military environment was ideal. “That was coupled with the fact that Captain Dave Pollard, commanding officer of the Bush at the time, saw the value of having these dogs come aboard and positively impact his sailors, airmen and Marines. That connection is very special. CAVU is very familiar with a military environment and being around people in uniform, so it is an ideal fit for him to be here.”

LEFT: Capt. David Pollard and Col. John P. Casper 鈥04 celebrate CAVU鈥檚 graduation day from Mutts With a Mission. RIGHT: CAVU visits barracks.
LEFT: Capt. David Pollard and Col. John P. Casper ’04 celebrate CAVU’s graduation day from Mutts With a Mission. RIGHT: CAVU visits cadets in barracks.

Casper is CAVU’s exclusive handler, and, per ADI standards, was required to go through 120 hours of training with other handlers last April. “CAVU knows over 75 commands, so I had to memorize all those. Our training included taking our dogs to various places an average person would go, like the zoo, coffee shops, entertainment venues, museums, and stores. We learned how to interact with our dogs, and how to handle people who approached us. CAVU goes with me everywhere, so when he’s not at VMI, he’s at my house. When I go elsewhere, like to the store, I put his service dog vest on him so people know they shouldn’t touch him. CAVU understands when he is wearing the vest, he is working. When we come home and I take off his vest, he knows it is time to relax, and turns into a different dog. He becomes playful and affectionate, and can be a little goofball, just like any other family dog.” Casper remarked.

Casper shared that he is blown away by the barriers CAVU is able to break down. “His presence can start conversations that probably wouldn’t have otherwise happened. He has a calming presence, and he matches your attitude. If your attitude is timid or quiet, CAVU will be docile and sit at your feet, but if you get down on the ground and play with him, he will eat that up! CAVU is also able to pick up on emotions. If he senses something is not quite right with someone, he will immediately give me subtle signals that I am able to pick up on. He has even given me signals about my own stress levels. Chaplain ministry is often crisis ministry, and I do absorb a lot. So CAVU is helpful to me too, on both a personal and professional level.”
CAVU does not have a rank yet, but may soon. “In a military context and with first responders, dogs typically outrank their handlers to prevent any perception of abuse. The handler has ownership over the dog, but if the dog outranks him, that changes things a little bit,” Casper quipped.

Because CAVU first arrived at VMI toward the end of spring semester, it wasn’t long before the cadets left post for the summer. Casper looks forward to seeing CAVU interact with the matriculants in August. “I’m really excited about seeing him shine during the Rat Line. I think that's going to be a game changer.”  

Marianne Hause
All photos courtesy of VMI Chaplain's Office
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