The Belgian Malinois accompanies veterans on exposure therapy flights to treat PTSD.

From early on, Torque ­displayed a gift for helping people. While training to become a detection dog, Torque, a 10-year-old Belgian Malinois with nonprofit EMU Inc., had the opportunity to become familiar with helicopters. She soon became a natural, showing none of the anxiety canines typically exhibit around rotorcraft.

One day, she demonstrated a unique capability to connect with military veterans, proving she could do much more than locate devices: she could help veterans find peace.

ROTOR conducted an “interview” with Torque and her team during HAI HELI‑EXPO 2024 in Anaheim, California.

ROTOR: What an inspiration you are to so many, Torque. Tell us about yourself and your work.

Torque: I’m from the San Francisco Bay Area, and I’m a crew member of EMU 309, a 1965 Vietnam War–era Bell UH-1H Huey helicopter that’s been fully restored to its wartime combat configuration. Nonprofit EMU Inc. owns and operates EMU 309, the only airworthy Vietnam War–era Huey that still has all its original parts.

EMU’s mission is to preserve the history of the Huey and serve US veterans by offering what are called “exposure therapy” flights to those suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

I’ve been flying with this Huey crew for over a decade. As I share this with you, I’ve completed 462 flights!

How did you get involved with EMU?

I’m trained to be a detection dog, helping apprehend child sexual predators and traffickers by sniffing out electronic storage devices, such as cell phones, thumb drives, and SD cards that contain evidence. My owner is a longtime detection-­dog trainer and handler who has taught many dogs to fly comfortably and safely in helicopters. I started training to fly when I was 6 months old.

How did you get comfortable with flying?

There’s much more to it than just sitting in the helicopter and flying. I received a lot of training to make sure I was well acclimated to working in and around the aircraft. The high-pitched sounds, vibrations, rotating blades, and intense rotor wash can be uncomfortable for people and dogs—but not me. I’m right there with our crew during their proficiency training.

We’ve practiced many hydraulic-system and engine-failure scenarios in which everyone involved knows how to respond … including me! While flying, I wear a tactical dog harness that’s tethered to the aircraft via two lines for safety. I also don goggles that have passed the American National Standards Institute (ANSI) Z87.1 impact-resistance test and special earplugs to protect my ears from sound, wind, and debris.

My handler volunteers with EMU 309 and, as luck would have it, the chief pilot used to fly dog teams during the Vietnam War. Meeting me for the first time brought back some of those memories for him, and he initially didn’t seem to want to spend time with me. One day, when he was napping, I snuggled up to him and won him over. It was then that he got the idea that I could play an important part in helping veterans heal.

What do you do in your current job?

I accompany veterans during exposure therapy flights in EMU 309. Many veterans return home from combat with serious PTSD. Through exposure therapy—a cognitive behavioral technique—we try to help them process some of what they’re feeling. I offer the kind of companionship and connection that only a dog like me can provide.

Every now and then, a veteran will begin to panic when the rotors start turning. I crawl over and sit next to them. I pass no judgment, nor do I question why they need my help or what’s troubling them. Many of them will hold on to me during flights as they connect to the memories of their past as soldiers. I help keep them grounded in today, where past threats don’t exist.

One time we flew with a 9-year-old boy who wanted to know why his father serving overseas loved flying helicopters so much. I could see him starting to get scared as we took off. I crawled up on the bench and put my head in his lap. He wrapped his arms around my neck and when our crew chief turned around to check on him, the boy gave the thumbs-up signal and said, “If Torque can do this, so can I!”

One of the reasons I fly in this Huey is to honor the service and sacrifice of more than 4,000 loyal US War Dogs who served as patrol and detection dogs during the Vietnam War. Those brave canines were credited with saving an estimated 10,000 American lives, yet their contributions have been largely forgotten.

What’s your favorite part of flying?

Sticking my head out the open door of the helicopter! It’s like a giant car window. The wind rushing through my fur, all the smells, it’s exhilarating! You haven’t lived until you’ve swallowed a bug from the open door of a Huey going 110 mph!

What are your most memorable experiences?

HAI HELI-EXPO 2024, for one! It was such an honor to attend. I met so many interesting people and learned a lot about different types of helicopters. I wanted to fly in every one of them!

Another time, when we flew to a Memorial Day event, a man wearing a Vietnam veteran hat approached me. When we made eye contact, he fell to his knees and started to cry. I went to him to offer comfort and he pulled a photo from his hat. It showed him with his war dog in Vietnam—the dog he had to leave behind. With tears in his eyes, he said, “Thank you for remembering our dogs.” I will never forget him.

I was also humbled to hear about a life-size sculpture of me that honors my service. Sculptor James Mellick designed it with a unique component—the body of a Huey helicopter in my torso. The sculpture will be on display at the American Kennel Club Museum of the Dog in New York City from September through December 2024.

Editor’s note: Learn more about Torque and follow her adventures on Instagram at www.Instagram.com/k9_torque.

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Jen Boyer

Jen Boyer

Jen Boyer is the principal of her own firm, Flying Penguin Communications. She has a bachelor’s degree in journalism and holds commercial, instrument, flight instructor, and instrument instructor ratings in helicopters and a private rating in airplanes. She has worked as a professional journalist and marketing communicator in the aviation industry since the early 1990s.