FORT LEE, Va. (Feb. 16, 2012) -- Volunteers are the heartbeat of the Fort Lee Stray Animal Facility. Three special ones are particularly instrumental in "turning (strays) into loving animals," said Provost Marshal Office Sgt. Tim Wilson whose responsibilities include the facility. These volunteers - Staff Sgt. Terrance Dailey, Staff Sgt. Kenneth Hunt and Army Family member Lauren LeMasters - "improve the quality of life" pets have while at the shelter.

The time and attention they give the animals are critical in helping cats and dogs, some of whom have never previously had positive human contact, become able to be part of a family and live in a home. In nurturing the pets, the volunteers are nurtured by the animals.

For most volunteers, working somewhere on post is a way to give back to the Fort Lee community. For Dailey, Hunt and LeMasters, it also is the way forward to new careers.

Hunt's and Dailey's Army careers are ending prematurely. The Fort Lee residents are part of the Fort Eustis Warriors in Transition Unit, which is designed to help them return to civilian life after experiencing injuries or illnesses that ended their eligibility for military duty.

Hunt had served a year each in Afghanistan and Iraq when he was injured in Iraq during a 16-month deployment. His Stryker vehicle hit an improvised explosive device, killing the gunner and giving Hunt a traumatic brain injury. The experience led to post-traumatic stress disorder.

Dailey contracted an autoimmune disease during his second one-year deployment in Iraq. Exposure to air polluted by burning oil fields and laboratory chemicals apparently triggered Sarcoidosis, he said. The disease has damaged his lungs and other organs. It was diagnosed in 2011 when treatment for asthma, the suspected cause of his breathing difficulties, was not effective.

Lauren LeMasters, the 23-year-old daughter of Brig. Gen. Clark W. LeMasters Jr., chief of the Ordnance Corps, and Col. Mary Louise "Crickett" LeMasters, graduated from the University of Iowa's REACH Program where she earned a certificate in animal care. She uses those skills in her volunteer work at the stray animal facility and the veterinary clinic on post as she prepares for a job as a veterinary assistant.

Dailey and Hunt have been volunteering at the facility since September 2011. They work at the shelter three or four days a week, as allowed by medical appointments, physical therapy and related WTU services.

A tender-hearted young woman, LeMasters simply loves being around animals. She and her 14-year-old Shetland sheepdog Dixie have been regulars at the facility since December 2010, averaging 30-35 hours a week. While LeMasters cleans cages and litter boxes or feeds and waters dogs and cats, Dixie hangs out with the new animals, giving them tips about living with a family.

LeMasters fosters some of the very young kittens that are brought to the facility. Foster care may require bottle-feeding for kittens and special attention for older cats who may need to learn how to play with humans. "Fostering makes me feel so happy. I feel like such a mother," she said. It also makes LeMasters sad to see animals "thrown away," but she's willing to do the unpleasant jobs at the facility and give up some of her sleep (to mewing kittens) to help strays have a new life.

LeMasters is a strong advocate for families adopting stray animals rather than buying them from breeders. She'd like to see Fort Lee have a dog park where canines can exercise and socialize off their leashes. Being able to romp at a dog park would help shelter dogs prepare for new families, she said.

Many service members, including Dailey and Hunt, have experienced debilitating injuries that can't be seen by casual observers. "You're not able to be 110 percent anymore," said Hunt, clearly disappointed there is not more acceptance of the reality of "invisible" injuries. While a lack of understanding about their medical challenges from many of their fellow Soldiers as well as much of the civilian world may get them down at times, working with the animals at the facility lifts Hunt's and Dailey's spirits.

Dailey summed it up this way, "Dogs give you a loyalty a human can't."

Both noncommissioned officers plan to use their volunteer experience in building new civilian resumes.

A hunter and a fisherman, Hunt enjoys working with animals. In addition to 16 years in the Army as a fueler (92F), he worked for a year as a deputy sheriff in his hometown of Albany, Ga., before returning to active duty. Hunt, 35, hopes to find a civilian job in the Tri-City Area working with animals, perhaps in a law enforcement capacity. He has an associate degree in criminal justice and a bachelor's in social services.

A mortuary affairs specialist (92M), Dailey, 38, aims to become an Alabama game warden when he returns to his hometown of Freemanville. He's currently taking general studies courses with Central Texas College at the Army Logistics University in preparation for his transition. Dailey also volunteers with Outdoor Recreation on post.

The volunteers are not the only ones benefiting from their service. Their work actually helps keep the stray animal facility open. "This program couldn't exist without our volunteers," said Wilson. "The PMO doesn't have the resources to handle (the facility) by ourselves. Without volunteers, police officers would be pulled from their normal duties to work at the facility."

Noting that the shelter is supported by the $45 adoption fee charged for a pet, Wilson expressed a desire for more resources of another kind. "I wish we had more volunteers like these."

The facility's volunteers work closely with Conservation Officer Mike Johnson who's in charge of daily operations and Frank Michalek, his part-time assistant.

There are many ways the Fort Lee community can support the facility - adopt a pet; donate food, pet toys or blankets; or volunteer to work in the shelter or provide foster care for an animal. For details, call Johnson at (804) 652-5979 or Michalek at 898-8208. The facility is in building 11027 next door to the Veterinary Clinic.