Woman's best friend: Hanscom welcomes first female K-9 handler in two decades

Staff Sergeant Jeanette Reichel, 66th Security Forces Squadron, poses with her Military Working Dog, Petya, a 6-year old German Sheppard, tattoo F-028. Sergeant Reichel entered the Hanscom history books on March 21 as the first female dog handler here in the past two decades after successfully completing her handler certification. (U.S. Air Force Photo by Linda LaBonte Britt)

Staff Sergeant Jeanette Reichel, 66th Security Forces Squadron, poses with her Military Working Dog, Petya, a 6-year old German Sheppard, tattoo F-028. Sergeant Reichel entered the Hanscom history books on March 21 as the first female dog handler here in the past two decades after successfully completing her handler certification. (U.S. Air Force Photo by Linda LaBonte Britt)

Staff Sergeant Jeanette Reichel, 66th Security Forces Squadron, and her Military Working Dog, Petya, a 6-year old German Sheppard, tattoo F-028, perform a search during her K-9 handler certification test. Sergeant Reichel entered the Hanscom history books on March 21 as the first female dog handler here in the past two decades after successfully completing her certification. (U.S. Air Force Photo by Linda LaBonte Britt)

Staff Sergeant Jeanette Reichel, 66th Security Forces Squadron, and her Military Working Dog, Petya, a 6-year old German Sheppard, tattoo F-028, perform a search during her K-9 handler certification test. Sergeant Reichel entered the Hanscom history books on March 21 as the first female dog handler here in the past two decades after successfully completing her certification. (U.S. Air Force Photo by Linda LaBonte Britt)

Staff Sergeant Jeanette Reichel, 66th Security Forces Squadron, and her Military Working Dog, Petya, a 6-year old German Sheppard, tattoo F-028 perform a search during her K-9 handler certification test. Sergeant Reichel entered the Hanscom history books on March 21 as the first female dog handler here in the past two decades after successfully completing her certification. (U.S. Air Force Photo by Linda LaBonte Britt)

Staff Sergeant Jeanette Reichel, 66th Security Forces Squadron, and her Military Working Dog, Petya, a 6-year old German Sheppard, tattoo F-028 perform a search during her K-9 handler certification test. Sergeant Reichel entered the Hanscom history books on March 21 as the first female dog handler here in the past two decades after successfully completing her certification. (U.S. Air Force Photo by Linda LaBonte Britt)

Hanscom AFB -- Editor's Note: This is the second article in a series highlighting Hanscom women and their accomplishments during National Women's History Month.

The U.S. military has utilized the various skills of working dogs since World War II and throughout the years Airman, Sailor, Soldier and Marine K-9 handlers have found solace in knowing their work protects fellow servicemembers.

For one Hanscom staff sergeant this reality has come true as she joined the ranks of the military working dog community.

Jeanette Reichel, with the assistance of her Military Working Dog Petya, a 6-year-old German Sheppard, tattoo F-028, entered the base history books March 21 as the first certified female dog handler here in two decades.

"Sergeant Reichel is an example of the dedicated, professional people we have in the Air Force and at Hanscom," said Col. Robert Boyles, 66th Mission Support Group commander. "This team will greatly enhance our security forces mission here, and through their presence, combat and deter crime."

After completing a rigorous three-month training program and passing the official certification, Sergeant Reichel and Petya now can be seen patrolling the streets of Hanscom.

Humbled by the thought of being a role model for fellow Airmen and younger women, the sergeant credits her accomplishments to the teamwork among the staff at the kennels.

"This is new to me [being a handler] and I had to get used to a new manner and way of thinking," she said. "They [the kennel staff here] have been patient and guided me through my training.

Both her colleagues and supervisors agree that there are unique challenges facing every new K-9 handler. "Handlers [who enter the career field as senior airmen] traditionally have both Air Force and dog handler-specific mentoring when they come out of school at their local units. [Sergeant Reichel] was able to pull from her past security forces experience and operational knowledge and progress through the training in about three months," said Tech. Sgt. Lawrence Gray, 66 SFS kennel master, who oversees the entire Hanscom K-9 program, including paperwork and documentation, coordination of training and training aids.

One of the first steps in Sergeant Reichel's training was rapport. The sergeant and Petya spent hours just walking. "The dog sits in the kennel all day hoping to see her face around the corner to take him out," Sergeant Gray said. After the handler and dog bond is formed the next step is obedience training followed by specialized training in the dog's area of expertise.

But before she could wake up, report to work, and be greeted with Petya's enthusiastic good-morning bark and wagging tail, the sergeant had to prove herself with some doggie veterans. The Air Force K-9 Handler 10-week training course, which is run out of Lackland Air Force Base, Texas, consists of two major parts: patrol and aggression work and detection work with seasoned veterans of the canine force. Sergeant Reichel made her journey to Lackland in June and upon graduation, she returned to Hanscom and was teamed with Petya.

However, the opportunity to become a handler may not have come to fruition if Sergeant Reichel had not entered the service through a unique set of circumstances.

"While searching online [in 1994] for information about occupational therapy employment [her college major at the time], I discovered a forum about the military on a career Web site. Within the more than 1,000 posts, people described their various jobs openly and honestly and also why joining the military was such a good thing. The next day I walked into the recruiting office to sign up," she said.

She soon discovered a passion for law enforcement, which has driven her throughout her security forces career thus far. Additionally, being the "first" in her career field isn't new to this sergeant either; while stationed at Kunsan Air Base, South Korea, she served as the first female Air Base Defense Instructor there.

"I trained both the base populace and the security forces personnel on weapons familiarization, SALUTE reports, and other base defense processes and procedures," she said.

Looking at her career, Sergeant Reichel doesn't credit just one person as a mentor. "Different people make you who you are," the sergeant said. "Throughout my career different people have influenced me and they weren't necessarily older than me. I've had troops who've inspired me by reminding me where I've come from."

One of the best experiences she's had within the Air Force is watching and teaching new troops to learn and grow. She hopes to do some learning and growing too during her time working with Petya.

Part of the uniqueness of the K-9 field is that you watch development of the dog from beginning to end, Sergeant Gray said.

"Every job I've had has had its unique challenges and I appreciate every opportunity to work in those areas," Sergeant Reichel said. "They allowed me to see how all aspects of the security forces world interact. K-9 is completely different than any other job I've had. I have never had another job with just one partner; it's great to know that Petya is right there with me," she said.

The sergeant offers a small piece of advice for those entering the career field, and the Air Force. "After you get through that first year, nothing can get you down," she said. "Your expectations change; manning the base gate when the temperature is minus 10 degrees and folks drive up saying 'it's so cold,' and the cold doesn't even faze you. It takes a certain type of individual -- a truly driven individual -- to become a cop."