By Sgt. Barry St. Clair
FORT BRAGG, N.C. -- The voices of children call across the yards near the end of a cul-de-sac neighborhood, a 5-year-old boy holds a flag to start the battery operated car race. The sunshine is warm, but the air has a crispness in what would normally be a light northern breeze.
For anyone who has served, the contrast between a Soldier's life at home, and a Soldier's life at war is a difficult one, but the difficulties are not strictly felt by humans. Throughout history animals have been participants in military operations, and in recent years, military working dogs, referred to as MWDs, have played a major role both at home and on the front lines.
The Department of Defense Military Working Dog Training and Breeding Programs at Lackland Air Force Base, San Antonio, Texas, is where MWDs train to detect drugs, explosives and accompany handlers on patrol. Service members in law enforcement train as well to become dog handlers, kennel masters, and to meet other DOD mission requirements. Together, dog and handler make a team.
MWDs have a personality like any human, and based on those personalities, leaders do their best to pair dogs and handlers for optimum partnership.
The bond between Soldiers, the handler and the dog, is similar to any veteran relationship, which only grows stronger when forced into tough situations like a deployment. However, once the mission is over for the MWD team, what happens to the dog? Unlike a human, MWDs do not receive a paycheck upon retirement. However, but there is hope for these animals who have served our country -- an adoption program.
The dog handlers have the first choice for adoption when the time comes for a MWD to be retired. Sgt. Pamela Collen of Angels Camp, Calif., assigned to 163rd Military Police Detachment, 716th MP Battalion, Fort Campbell, Ky., which is part of the 16th MP Brigade, Fort Bragg, adopted Astra after spending the last seven years and two deployments together.
Astra is a Belgian Malinois trained in special bomb search. On their first deployment she earned the respect of the Soldiers they were supporting near Forward Operating Base Warhorse, in Iraq.
"It was our first deployment, our first mission, our first time outside the wire supporting special operations forces," said Collen. "We had good intelligence, and sure enough, Astra located her first find -- a device weighing more than 60 pounds [comprised] of explosives and accelerants."
Astra and Collen have been through a lot together, both on deployments and back at home.
"Astra is like my best friend," says Collen, who has a horse and a Great Dane as well. "She was with me when we were away from homeland for the first time. She was with me through my divorce. She saved my life I don't know how many times. She is what made the Army worth it for me and the reason I re-enlisted."
During their second deployment, Collen and Astra served in the 25th Infantry Division, on Camp Liberty, just outside the "green zone" in Iraq, as a morale dog team, visiting the headquarters Soldiers at least three times a week. The visits were both official and unofficial. Astra would sweep the buildings, but also enjoyed the attention of division staff.
"We went outside the wire one day with explosive ordnance disposal and engineer road builders," said Collen. "We had been over the same route more than 40 times. Astra went to a tree alongside the road and alerted. Sure enough, there was a device emplaced during the three days since we had been along the route, under the same tree the platoon sergeant had leaned against while taking a break the week before."
Veterans love to tell war-stories by the hour. It becomes part of the fellowship of partners-in-arms who have supported each other through the challenges of the battlefield. The dogs are not nearly as interested in the stories as they are chasing a tennis ball. That is fellowship and camaraderie to them.
On a few occasions, the handler is not always able to take on the responsibility for a variety of reasons. If the handler is not able to adopt, the dog is available for adoption to anyone who can provide a "forever home" for the veteran Soldier.
Sgt. James Bethea currently serves a military policeman and dog handler assigned to 550th MWD Detachment, 42nd MP Detachment, 16th MP Brigade, Fort Bragg, providing law enforcement support to the community. Recently, he returned from a deployment in Afghanistan, with Jeta, a Belgian Malinois and former MWD, where the two supported Special Operations forces.
"Relationship and rapport building comes with time, but my dog and I hit it off right away," said Bethea. "We certified within two weeks, and deployed about 10 days after that."
Following the deployment, Jeta retired from active military service upon her return to the U. S. She suffers from canine post-traumatic stress disorder, or C-PTSD, for many of the same reasons humans suffer. She witnessed many combative situations while on active service.
Capt. Morgan Beck of Greenville, Mich., a former company commander in the 407th Brigade Support Battalion, 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 82nd Airborne Division, adopted Jeta in July of this past year.
"I wanted to give her a good home after she served our country. She's served longer than I have," said Morgan.
"I think it is worthwhile adopting a MWD," Morgan continued. "She protects me. Her old handler (Bethea) came to visit and the door was slightly open. When she heard someone turning the handle, she began barking, but soon recognized who it was and was happy to see him."
Bethea continues to visit his former partner Jeta, who lives nearby, weekly since her retirement.
"I continue that relationship because she was an integral part in why I made it back," stated Bethea as he reminisced that Jeta found 14 explosive devices and a pressure plate detonator during their tour together. "It helps her get acclimated to another phase of life in retirement."
Morgan was able to provide a home for Jeta when her handler could not, and now they enjoy bonding at agility classes where Jeta navigates through obstacles and performs admirably.
"She is the best companion there is," said Morgan.
MWDs are very well trained, obedient and loyal animals. They have been exposed to training events and environments that many pets never experience, but because of these experiences, when the dogs retire their needs can be costly, which is something for families to consider.
Sgt. Chloe Wells of Delray Beach, Fla., assigned to 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 82nd Airborne Division, Fort Bragg, as a behavioral health specialist, adopted veteran MWD Doc. Doc has been diagnosed with C-PTSD after a mortar attack threw him and his handler 300 feet. Like Jeta, Doc's handler was unable to adopt him.
"It's probably one of the hardest decisions I ever made," said Staff Sgt. Michael Alcorn, Doc's former handler.
Wells adopted Doc when he had to be re-homed from another service member due to mission requirements. She has founded two North Carolina-based organizations to support retired MWD and raise awareness about C-PTSD.
"The Canine PTSD Awareness organization is set up to make dogs like Doc more adoptable since not everyone wants to adopt a dog that has issues and has medications they have to take every day," said Wells, the organization founder. "Doc deserves just as good a home as any other dog does in spite of his issues."
The organization raises awareness for all dogs, military, law enforcement and shelter animals with C-PTSD. It also raises monies to help defray the medical costs of adopting a dog with special medical costs, and coordinate dog trainers who have the skills to help both the dogs and adoptive families work through issues.
The sister organization Retired MWD Support Inc., or R-MWD, is a North Carolina-based organization aimed to raise funds to offset the veterinary, mental health treatment, and medication costs that come along with R-MWD adoption.
Sometimes, it is not just the dog that needs help healing and overcoming obstacles. Master Sgt. Scott Peirsol of Seattle and his wife Faith Peirsol of Port Jefferson, N.Y., lost her 14-year-old Doberman to cancer two weeks before the Peirsols adopted Bak.
"I didn't think I would ever be able to have another dog fill my life so soon after my dog's passing," said Faith Peirsol. "Bak has made a tenfold-positive impact on our family."
Scott Peirsol, assigned to Military Information Support Operations Command at Fort Bragg, has been recovering from knee surgery he had less than a year ago. He and Bak have formed a symbiotic bond as veterans. Peirsol needs the morning walk and Bak enjoys living in retirement with someone who still wears a familiar uniform.
"Bak is up at 6:30 a.m., regardless of what day it is to go for a walk," said Scott Peirsol. "After we return from the walk, we throw a ball or rope for ten minutes in the back yard, and only then will Bak come inside to eat. Then I can start my day."
"I think as a family Bak is loved and accepted," said Scott Peirsol about providing Bak a home.
Bak remains active in retirement, serving alongside their adoptive families who actively support returning troops at Fayetteville, N.C., Airport by standing with members of the Patriot Guard Riders of N.C., in the receiving line. They were also present at the Special Operations Forces K9 Soldiers Memorial when it was unveiled July 27, in a ceremony at Airborne and Special Operations Museum, in Fayetteville.
Lackland maintains between 950 and 1,000 dogs, from puppies to certified MWDs. There are typically 500 to 600 dogs deployed across the services and around the world in support of ongoing law enforcement missions, preserving and protecting DOD personnel and coalition partners. For the past two years, approximately 23 MWDs have been adopted from the 16th Military Police Brigade, to loving families and "forever homes."
The unveiling of the Military Working Dog Teams National Monument occurred at Lackland, Oct. 28, 2013. The memorial features a figure of the memorial foundation president retired Master Sgt. John Burnham, who served as a dog handler in the Vietnam conflict with three different MWDs. It also has statues of the four most prominent MWDs since World War II and four flag poles flying the flags of various branches of the military.