By MaryJane Mudd, American Red Cross

For military veteran Artemis O’Conan, serving others as an American Red Cross Disaster Services volunteer comes naturally.

“I volunteered when I was 16 years old,” she recalled during a recent disaster preparedness exercise while her medical alert dog, Annie, found a comfortable spot on her lap. “I knew then that I’d be back some day.”

O’Conan had some other things to do first, including serving as a wheel vehicle mechanic in Iraq. From 2003 through 2006, she and her team maintained Humvees and tractor trailers to ensure American troops had reliable transportation and supplies. After an accident resulted in traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress disorder, O’Conan was medically retired.

Enter Annie the medical alert dog. “She’s been with me a long time,” said O’Conan while giving her furry friend a belly rub.  “To be honest, she keeps me from having panic attacks. Annie goes with me nearly everywhere and fits right in.” Indeed, the dog seemed at home during the full-day exercise, organized by the Red Cross in preparation of the 2017 spring storm season.

If Annie is a regular at the Red Cross it’s because her human is as well, offering comfort to countless people since joining the Disaster Services team in 2008. After major storms and floods, she has managed shelters, distributed food and ensured those in need receive relief items. When fires have consumed residents’ homes, O’Conan has been among the Red Cross volunteers who show up to offer water and blankets at all hours of the day and night. She is a case manager as well, helping people along the path to recovery after disaster.

One of her favorite activities to do with Annie is installing smoke alarms as part of the Red Cross Home Fire Campaign. “Kids are often afraid of adults coming into their homes, even if we’re there to help them learn about fire safety and install smoke alarms,” said O’Conan. “But they always love my dog. She keeps everyone calm.”

Annie’s ears perked up as the disaster preparedness exercise started to wind down. When asked what drives her to spend her time at an all-day training like this one or by volunteering her time throughout the year, O’Conan’s answer was simple. “I enjoy the camaraderie of people coming together to serve others. It might sound funny, but it’s the truth.”

With this, she gently tugged Annie’s leash, waved goodbye and walked out with other volunteers who spoke excitedly about what they had learned and how they would need to apply it if it rains like it did last year. Considering all O’Conan has given in service to her country and in the aid of others, it would appear the truth makes perfect sense.

The American Red Cross is in critical need of Disaster Services volunteers. Please consider joining our team by calling 713-313-1608 and learning more!