Offutt honors retiring military working dogs

  • Published
  • By Senior Airman Rachel Hammes
  • 55th Wing Public Affairs

A hush fell over the guard mount room of the 55th Security Forces Squadron at Offutt Air Force Base, Neb., June 28. Rows of Team Offutt members rose respectfully to await the official party.

It was retirement season, but this was no normal retirement – while there would be awards given, cake eaten and speeches made, the focus was on two German Shepherds who trotted in, one after another, held loosely on leashes by handlers.

Lt. Col. Ian Dinesen, commander of the 55th SFS, took the stage next to them and smiled.

“Military working dogs Ada and Tex, this is for you,” he said.

 In the program that followed, Ada and Tex were awarded meritorious service certificates and military working dog service awards, recognizing the multiple deployments they’d completed for Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom.

“It’s definitely an emotional event,” said Tech. Sgt. Christopher Darrow, a dog handler with the 55th SFS. “I had my first dog retired to me, so I take this to heart. The dogs do a lot more work than a lot of people actually think. They head down range and they protect a lot of people.”

Neither dog is older than 11, but they’re old by military working dog standards. While they may want to keep up with the younger dogs, their bodies rarely let them. During their time at Offutt, they’ve formed a bond with their handlers that is hard to break.

“I saw Ada’s retirement coming, but it was still a little hard,” said Senior Airman Kathryn Malone, a dog handler with the 55th SFS, who worked as Ada’s primary handler prior to her retirement. “When we work, we do everything together. Everything I do, she does with me. It was hard knowing she wasn’t going to be my partner anymore, because we had that trust. I trusted her, she trusted me.”

That trust wasn’t easy to form, Malone said.

“She’s had a lot of different handlers because she’s one of the older dogs,” she said. “At first we didn’t click as much, but one day we did and now she won’t leave my side. She only wants love from me.”

Ada was the first dog assigned to Malone after she became a handler, but the bond they formed served Ada well when she was up for retirement. Handlers typically get the first opportunity to adopt retiring dogs, and Malone leapt at the chance.

“She’s goofy,” Malone said. “She acts like a puppy, but she’s got a ten-year-old’s body. She’s trying to play, she’s trying to still be active. She wants to work, still, and do all of the things she used to do.”

Malone’s bond with Ada is different from the bond she shares with her other two dogs, who never worked as military working dogs.

“I love them and they love me,” she said. “But it’s different when you have your military working dog partner, because they’re your lifeline on the road. All the training you do together – one day they could be the reason I make it home. They might have already been the reason I’m still here. It’s a deeper bond, a bigger one. They have to trust me in order for them to do their job, and I have to trust them with everything.”

While Ada had some difficulty accepting she no longer had to work, she’s made a lot of progress.

“When I brought her home she would still circle all the rooms and do her patterns and detect,” Malone said. “But now she’s like, ‘Oh, I get to lay on this comfy bed?’ She’s getting used to being lazy. She wants to play and run around with my other dogs, but she can’t keep up as much.”

While Ada gets to enjoy her retirement with Malone, Tex’s retirement is a goodbye.

“With Tex, he’s being retired because he’s sick, so it’s been a lot harder to watch,” said Malone, who worked with Tex after Ada was removed from duty. “It’s rougher with Tex than it was with Ada because even though Ada isn’t my partner anymore, she’s at home and I get to see her every day and make sure the rest of her life is great. I don’t get to do that with him.”

Tex suffers from seizures that make it impossible for him to work. Additionally, he is too aggressive to be adopted, leaving the handlers little choice but to euthanize him.

“I try not to talk about it a whole lot, because it sucks,” said Staff Sgt. Matthew Stewart, a dog handler with the 55th SFS. “He’s my little buddy. We would ride around together, walk fence lines together – spend 12 hours a day together. It’s like losing a best friend. Because it takes so long to build that bond with him, your bond is really strong. He’s not going to run up to other people – he’s going to stay with me all the time, even in the office. He won’t let me out of his sight, because he wants to be my friend.”

Stewart has worked with Tex for the last year and a half, ever since he arrived at Offutt. Stewart thinks PTSD may be the reason behind Tex’s inability to move past aggression, especially given the four deployments Tex has worked.

“He’s what they would consider a war dog – he’s actually been in combat,” Stewart said. “Getting shot at, finding explosives. Most of the time they’re going to be either inside the wire, searching vehicles and fence lines, or outside the wire, searching roadways. When you see his search pattern, you can tell he’s really good at searching roadways because he’s done it so much. He has saved countless lives in Iraq and Afghanistan.”

The bond Steward shares with Tex is strengthened by the fact that Tex was the first military working dog he was ever assigned to.

“I hope he doesn’t know what’s going on,” Stewart said. “I like his personality – I’ll miss that the most. I like the fact that when you’re walking around with him, people know that he’s a scary dog and don’t want to mess with you. It’s nice to have that security.”

While retirement is an expected part of most military working dogs’ careers, it never gets any easier to say goodbye.

“People that truly love the job and are passionate about the dogs – you’re going to have a different bond with every dog, but the bond will always be there,” Malone said.