Ohio University Professor Leads Mental Health Initiative Within National Guard

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ATHENS, Ohio (WOUB) — Athens County resident Dr. Todd Fredricks is a jack of all trades.

He’s taught family medicine at Ohio University for nearly a decade. For even longer, he’s dedicated himself to serving his community. He’s worked in emergency rooms, urgent cares and most recently as a psychiatric hospitalist for the Ohio Department of Mental Health & Addiction Services.

But his latest ventures reach far beyond the Athens County border. Fredricks is on his fourth rotation in Kuwait, serving as a senior medical officer for the West Virginia National Guard.

“In the West Virginia guard we have a tradition of supporting our own units,” Fredricks said. “And so, it’s expected that West Virginia doctors, nurse practitioners and physician assistants … We just know that we’re going to be obliged to take care of our own people.”

Before heading overseas, Fredricks spent the first year of the pandemic filling his role as a medical liaison for the guard. He was brought on by West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice to advise the state’s COVID-19 response and vaccine distribution plans.

So when Fredricks was deployed in March, he quickly recognized the inefficiency of the National Guard’s COVID-19 testing procedures.

In fact, his plane hadn’t even landed in Kuwait when he decided it would be his duty to bring about change.

“I just went to my boss and said, ‘Hey can I please take over all this testing at our base?’ You get better at the things you do frequently. And I knew that with my staff, we could do testing up here in a very efficient way,” Fredricks said. “So we basically just applied principles of community testing we had in West Virginia to where we’re at now.”

Fredricks is now in charge of asymptomatic testing for soldiers returning home from his military base in Kuwait.

Yet his other recent accomplishments stretch beyond the scope of the pandemic.

His devotion to the study of service dogs informed a new endeavor – connecting these dogs with soldiers in the service of mental health.

“There’s a stigma with behavioral health … Just because you have stress or anxiety doesn’t mean you’re ‘crazy.’ It means you’re going through a time where you just need a little tune-up. You need to talk to people, to get that stuff out,” Fredricks said. “One of the best things about canines is they destigmatize that. Because you’re not going to talk to the psychologist, you’re going to pet the dog.”

Fredricks recalled his tours in Iraq, where he was inspired by the power of these dogs to act as a bridge between soldiers and mental health professionals.

But the program shut down when U.S. forces rapidly left Iraq, and there have since been few attempts to revive it.

Fredricks said he felt the need for change.

“One of the first things I asked as a medical supervisor over here was … ‘Where is the animal, the canine, that supports behavioral health efforts by being available for a soldier to connect with so they can chill out?’ And so I asked where this dog was, well there are none.”

He and his team wasted no time. With the help of Combat and Operational Stress Control (COSC) Commander James Mathues, they began gathering literature from past programs and built a new operating procedure from scratch.

“Because you’ve got to feed the dog, you’ve got to give support to the dog, there’s got to be a training plan, and you’ve got to have metrics to measure dog effectiveness,” Fredricks said. “We put that all together in a matter of days and got endorsements from senior leadership.”

Before the project could be finalized, Fredricks made one last request to Mathues, who was selected to run the program long-term.

“I said the only requirement I have is: whatever you do with this, if it turns into a program and you keep metrics, I want you to send them to me so I can write a paper on it.”

Just a few weeks after the Fredricks’ plan was set in motion, his program received final approval on June 15. The first support dog at his base is named Musket, inspired by the patch of their national guard unit.

Dog wearing a military vest with a Musket nametag
Musket dons his new uniform as he begins his two-week training and conditioning program. [Courtesy of Todd Fredricks]
This program is an opportunity for Fredricks to eliminate stigma and save loved ones from tremendous grief.

“In my mind, having a program, if it can prove efficacy, and it mitigates one suicide, is it worth it? … For the one testimony of a soldier that said I was going to do something drastic because I didn’t know what else to do. But I had a chance to chill out with a dog for a while, I started talking to someone, and now I see things differently.”

Not only may this program confront mental health challenges — it also has the potential to save the military millions of dollars.

“And that’s without counting the human cost,” Fredricks said. “That’s life insurance, evacuation, the loss of skilled talent, the retraining of skilled talent, the deployment of a new person, there’s just a million ways that it’s bad … [But] the total life cycle costs of Musket are going to be very, very small.”

Fredricks hopes to share the impacts of these dogs – both overseas and at home – through his passion for storytelling.

“Dogs of War” will be the latest documentary produced for Fredricks’ “Media and Medicine” initiative, created in collaboration with Media Arts and Studies professor Brian Plow.

“It’s all about service canines and their relationships with the veterans who use them, for PTSD and mobility issues,” Fredricks said. “It should be very compelling.”

Production is expected to wrap within the next two years.

Already looking ahead, Fredricks has begun gathering content for another project, “The Art of Udairi.” This multimedia project hopes to preserve the hundreds of murals created by U.S. soldiers at their staging post in Kuwait.

“You have 18-year-olds that are now close to 40 that left part of themselves here on a wall – an expression, an artistic expression – and no one at home has ever seen it,” Fredricks said. “Even when the soldiers go to war, they don’t leave behind their humanity or their artistic expression or their desire to leave a mark on the world that is memorable.”

But the brutal sandstorms of the Kuwaiti desert mean these works have little time left before they are gone for good.

“There’s one particularly detailed mural that I haven’t shot yet, and it’s just – the paint is just peeling off of it. That was fresh, and there’s a kid out there who painted that, who took a picture of it when it was new,” Fredricks said. “And I’d love to be able to contrast what ten years does and how ephemeral this stuff is.”

A fading mural captured at Camp Buehring, formerly Camp Udairi [Courtesy of Todd Fredricks]
A fading mural captured at Camp Buehring, formerly Camp Udairi [Courtesy of Todd Fredricks]
A fading mural captured at Camp Buehring, formerly Camp Udairi [Courtesy of Todd Fredricks]
A fading mural captured at Camp Buehring, formerly Camp Udairi [Courtesy of Todd Fredricks]
A fading mural captured at Camp Buehring, formerly Camp Udairi [Courtesy of Todd Fredricks]

Fredricks says he never winds down; he follows the mantra that “you don’t get anything done unless you stay moving.”

Whether it’s community health, public service or storytelling, Fredricks has always been a go-getter. His research and action regarding the Behavioral Health Canine Program is just the latest example of his constant commitment to bettering his community.