Arts & Culture

Dogs of War

  • By Bryan Mims
  • Photography by Andrew Craft

After they complete their military service, K9 veterans find respect, admiration, and plenty of snuggle time from adoptive families.

K9 Veterans

A dog named Doc is doing laps around the coffee table, the two tags on his camouflage collar jingling like quarters in a fidgety man’s pocket. His pink tongue hangs out of his mouth as if it could unravel all the way to the floor. Across the street in his neighborhood on the edge of Fayetteville, some kids are laughing and carrying on. Their squeals have Doc, a 78-pound Belgian Malinois, going in circles. Jingle, jingle, jingle. Huff, huff, huff.

But now he stops. He’s between my end of the leather sofa and the flat-screen TV. Doc sits with impeccable posture, his eyes glaring out the storm door, his ears extended like two dorsal fins. Except for his rapid-fire breathing, he’s as still as a soldier at attention. I look into his brown eyes. The things those eyes have seen. Iraq: been there. Afghanistan: been there. War: done that.

The voices of neighborhood kids have trailed off. Doc is now at ease, though his ears are still erect. Inside one ear, imprinted on that unflappable flap, is a tattoo with an identification number: L258. The things those ears have heard. His wet nose nudges my wrist and advances toward my lap. I know what that face says: What’s a dog gotta do for a little back rub around here?

Slobber falls on my knee. His breath is hot. “You sure are one handsome dog,” I tell him, stroking his deep-pile coat of black and brown and gray. Handsome is the word I choose. I can’t call him cute or sweet, nor can I make silly sounds with my lips or engage in baby talk. This is a veteran. An American hero. I should shake his paw, pat his back, say “thank you for your service,” and “may God bless you,” and “have one on me.”

On his collar, his name is spelled “Ddoc.” Lackland Air Force Base, where he was born and trained, doubles the first two letters of a canine’s name so dogs from its breeding program can be easily identified. Doc — or Ddoc, if you will — is a lovable dog in a home where his caretakers give him “snuggle sessions.” He has a spacious grass-and-sand backyard, kibble in his bowl, and tennis balls to sink his teeth into. The demands of the battlefield have surrendered to the quaint commands displayed in three words on the fireplace mantel: Live. Laugh. Bark.

•••

It’s October 2011, on a road somewhere in Afghanistan. Doc is on patrol with soldiers from Fort Bragg. Tethered to his handler, he’s sniffing for improvised explosive devices, better known by their dread abbreviation: IEDs. It’s what he’s trained to do, and he does his job exceptionally well. His current owner says during his month and a half in Afghanistan, Doc found 14 IEDs. He even detected a pressure plate for a bomb that the Explosive Ordnance Disposal specialists overlooked. Had he not found it …

Suffice it to say this dog has saved lives.

But then there was a “situation,” as his former handler, Staff Sgt. Mike Alcorn, describes it. Alcorn is talking to me on his cell phone in his car in Alexandria, Virginia, where he now lives.

“He was not the same dog after that situation,” Alcorn says. “He was still my buddy. He was scared, scared to death. He’d run and cower and hide under my cot. He didn’t want to go on missions after that.”

Doc’s new family recounts the “situation” that traumatized him. Doc and his squadron come under attack. There’s gunfire. There’s mortar fire. One of the mortars strikes so close it hurls Doc and Alcorn some 300 feet, with the handler landing on top of the dog. “And from then on, Doc was trying to pull him away, like ‘get out of here!’ ” says Sgt. Chloe Wells, the 27-year-old soldier from Fort Bragg who adopted Doc.

Alcorn tries to return fire, but Doc is pulling his leash the other way. They both end up in a ditch. Alcorn is still trying to return fire, but Doc is yanking too hard. There’s no use. Doc wins.

And then it’s over.

And then they’re back at base.

And then … what’s wrong with Doc?

Maybe he just needs some time off. Let’s give him some dummy explosives to practice with. He noses them out as expertly as ever, but he’s not alerting anyone. He’s supposed to sit — why isn’t he sitting? We can’t trust him to go out and patrol if he’s not alerting to anything.

Doc has to go home. By December, he and Alcorn are back in the states. A veterinarian diagnoses Doc with canine post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and he is retired. Alcorn fills out all the papers to adopt him and is so elated at the thought of taking his beloved battle buddy home.

But Alcorn has a baby on the way — Doc doesn’t do well around babies — and he’s about to move into a smaller house out of state. With two dogs already, a baby, a new job assignment, and a new city, adopting Doc just won’t work out. “It’s probably one of the hardest decisions I ever made,” Alcorn says. “After all we’ve been through … .”

•••

Alcorn’s voice cracks as he tells his story. “Man, I cried for days after that. It was terrible, terrible,” he says. “I’m getting all choked up thinking about it now.”

He moved on, resigned to the thought that he likely would never see Doc again.

Doc was born in March 2006 at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas, home of the Department of Defense Military Working Dog Program. This is where most dogs — mainly Belgian Malinois, German shepherds, and
Labrador retrievers — are raised for combat and law enforcement duty in the military. Lackland has about 1,000 dogs at any given time, with anywhere from 500 to 600 on deployment. Of those, roughly 5 percent show signs of canine PTSD, according to Dr. Walter Burghardt, chief of behavioral medicine at Lackland.

Chloe adopted Doc after she came across his picture in March on Craigslist. The ad mentioned that a family could no longer care for Doc, and he needed a new home. With a big heart for big dogs (she already had two, a Belgian Malinois and German shepherd), Chloe had to see Doc for herself. She drove to the animal shelter on Fort Bragg and looked into those brown eyes that have seen so much. “As soon as I saw him, I said, ‘I’m taking this dog home,’” Chloe recalls as she sits on her sofa after getting off work at Fort Bragg. She’s still in her boots, beige T-shirt, and camouflage pants. “He came right up to me, hopped up, gave me a lick on the face, and put his paw on my shoulder.”

Doc had been pacing. All the howling and yapping in the kennels made him antsy. What he needed now was a quiet, easygoing home where he could live out his retirement with belly rubs and snuggle sessions.

Her husband, Sgt. First Class Jeff Wells, wasn’t all warm and fuzzy to the idea of a third dog around the house — weren’t Sofie and Ranger, endearing though they are, enough of a handful? But then he saw those eyes, and he heard those stories of Doc’s service downrange, and he felt that tug. “I looked at him sitting all handsome and proud,” he tells me. “I couldn’t help but think he’s a war hero who’s living in the house. He’s deployed more than the two of us have. He’s been places and done things.”

Doc takes antianxiety medication for his PTSD, and sometimes he wears a Thundershirt, which snugly wraps around him as if he’s being hugged. It calms him. But undoubtedly his favorite stress buster is his Kong, a hollow rubber toy shaped something like a snowman that can be stuffed with treats. Doc’s is filled with peanut butter. As he gnaws on it, the peanut butter — and what dog doesn’t love peanut butter? — oozes out of holes in the top and bottom. “He doesn’t even need anything in it half the time,” Chloe says. “He just wants to chew the Kong.” He chews and chews and chews until the Kong is nothing but shredded rubber.

You watch him there on the hardwood floor, astride the boot-clad feet of his caretakers, doing the things that dogs do — licking, chewing, scratching, panting — and think about what this dog has done. He has his flashbacks and bouts of anxiety, yes, but right now he looks innocent and at peace. As Jeff points out, “It’s hard to imagine him being downrange, sniffing out bombs and saving lives.”

•••

Like many of their men and women counterparts who go off to war, many four-legged warriors don’t come home alive. They, too, had people who cared about them and loved them and cried at their passing. They, too, had names. Bart. Bronco. Freddy. Pepper. On a sunny Saturday in July, Doc was among the bewhiskered faces in the crowd for the unveiling of the Special Operations Forces Canine Memorial. There, outside the Airborne and Special Operations Museum in Fayetteville, a bronze statue of a Belgian Malinois, decked out in combat gear, stands sentinel over 58 granite stones bearing the names of dogs killed in action. Beneath each name — Valco and Falco and Marco and Mailo — is the year and mission in which the dog gave his life. Chiseled in the centerpiece stone are these words: “Here we honor our SOF K9’s that have paid the ultimate price.”

•••

Another furry face in the crowd that special day was a German shepherd named Bak. People had their picture taken with him. They thanked him for his service. Kids hugged him. Bak never served in combat, but he’s a veteran no less. Combat duty isn’t a prerequisite for commanding respect and gratitude. The U.S. military is a massive worldwide organization with a myriad of jobs. Bak, for one, has a formidable nose for finding narcotics, so for seven years he worked as a military police dog at an Army installation in Korea. He retired this year.

He now makes his home in Harnett County, at the end of a cul-de-sac in a newish subdivision north of Fort Bragg. Master Sgt. Scott Peirsol and his wife, Faith, adopted Bak in June, bringing him home to live with a 15-year-old Lab mix named Jamocha, and with a 5-year-old named Cailen, who emerges in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle pajamas for a goodnight hug. Cailen and Bak are best buds; Cailen even made him a birthday card — “Happy Birthday Bak” in red marker — when Bak turned 9 in June.

•••

The Piersols first considered taking in a canine patriot when their friends, Mark and Jasmine Russell of Fayetteville, adopted a retired military dog named Brit. The handlers always have first dibs at adoption; when that’s not possible, the dogs are offered to the public. The Russells received an email this spring from a kennel master in Korea saying a dog needed a family. Scott and Faith filled out the application, and by July — months earlier than expected — Bak was ready to be picked up at the Atlanta airport.

“For him, when he came to our house, he thought it was just another job,” Scott says. “So he would patrol the yard; he would search for things in the house.” That dogged dedication contributed to his accomplished career: Bak’s service in Korea led to more than 20 drug convictions, and, just last year, he won second place for narcotics detection at a Department of Defense tournament.

“I see him as a retired soldier,” Scott says. “He’s retired, and he needs to make that transition to pet, to be just a member of the family.”

This member of the family now has his own Facebook page “with more friends than I have,” Scott says. He even has his own business cards. And Faith takes him all over the place — to Starbucks, to her son’s first day of kindergarten, to the airport, to downtown Fayetteville on a Friday night. When he’s in public, Bak wears his colorful work vest emblazoned with patches and stars. It displays the letters “MP” for military police and has the staff sergeant insignia sewn on; as is common practice, a military working dog is always one rank higher than his handler so that any abuse would be considered an assault on a superior officer. The vest is a natural conversation starter. “He can get the respect that he deserves as a retired military member,” Faith says. “Mostly they thank him for his service. People have been exceptionally respectful. They thank us for taking him in.”

And now here he is, in the living room, being asked a most unflattering question: “Do you need to go potty?”

So we go outside, to the backyard, a wide-open yard with a fire pit in the middle and woods on the back side. Scott takes a plastic ball launcher called a Chuckit. “Wanna see how fast he is?” After a couple of false starts — “He’s teasing him,” Faith tells me — Scott lets fly and Bak tears off across the yard. Oh, he’s fast, especially for a dog with arthritis and nerve damage in his back. And after a couple of fetches, he’s tired. “Yeah,” Faith says, “I see him kind of bunny hoppin’.”

So we go inside, back to the living room. I ask about Bak’s former handler in Korea. Of course he wishes he could have adopted Bak, but he had to deploy to Afghanistan. “He said he had a relationship with Bak that he couldn’t describe in words,” Faith says. “When he found out what kind of life
Bak is living, he couldn’t have been happier.”

•••

It’s Memorial Day weekend 2013. Staff Sgt. Mike Alcorn is with his wife, Megan, at the Iwo Jima Memorial outside Washington, D.C. His 7-month-old daughter, Adelynn, is in the stroller. They’re out for a walk, looking around, ambling among all the other people looking around. And then there’s this dog with ears like dorsal fins and a deep-pile coat of black and brown and gray.

Is that … ?

Like a mother instinctively knows her baby’s cry, a handler knows his dog. “My heart just leapt out of my chest,” Alcorn says. “Words can’t even describe what it meant to me.” There he is, with Chloe and Jeff, in this sacred American place, a beautifully fitting place to honor the sacred bond between a soldier and his canine comrade.

But will he recognize me?

Doc is running now. He jumps into his old partner’s arms. It feels so good. Alcorn is crying. His wife had been in on the scheme. Chloe and Jeff wanted to drive from Fayetteville and give Alcorn a surprise visit from Doc. “It was pretty emotional for everybody,” Chloe tells me. “It was awesome.”

They visit for an hour or so in the park. Doc and Alcorn have some one-on-one time. Then it’s time to go, time for goodbye. Man, is that hard. Alcorn is crying again. Everyone is crying. He loves this dog so much, he has a portrait of Doc tattooed on his left torso “so that he’d always be with me.”

But it comforts him to know that his old buddy is getting snuggle sessions in a good home where he can live and laugh and bark. Those aren’t the only feel-good words above the Wellses’ fireplace mantel. Here are two more: Happy Tails.

K9 Soldier Memorial
Airborne & Special Operations Museum
100 Bragg Boulevard
Fayetteville, N.C. 28301
(910) 643-2766
asomf.org

Bryan Mims is a reporter with WRAL-TV in Raleigh. After writing about Doc and Bak, he has a newfound love for dogs — especially those who have served our country. His most recent story for Our State was “Friday Frame of Mind” (September 2013).

This entry was posted in Coast, Military, November 2013 and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Dogs of War

  1. Like Sharon above, I too, was recently sitting in the waiting room at my doctor’s office and picked up a copy of “Our State” magazine and came across this article. It was all I could do to finish the article through my tears. I have always had tremendous respect for our service dogs. They deserve a good home where they can live out their retirement in peace and quiet with a family who can provide lots of love and understanding. I hope that I, too, will have the privilege of adopting one of these deserving soldiers.

    Thanks Bryan for writing this article – you have done a wonderful deed on behalf of these precious heros. I’m sure it has left a lasting impression on everyone who has read it.

  2. SHARON says:

    I WAS SITTING IN A DOCTORS OFFICE WAITING ROOM WHEN I PICKED UP OUR STATE MAGAZINE TO LOOK AT WHILE I WAITED. I WAS BROUGHT TO TEARS WHEN I READ THIS ARTICLE. THE NURSE CAME OUT TO CALL ME BACK & ASKED ME WHY I WAS UPSET. I TOLD HER ABOUT THE ARTICLE & SHE HANDED ME A KLEENEX. I AM SO GLAD THERE ARE PEOPLE WHO CARE ABOUT ANIMALS AS MUCH AS I DO. I THANK ALL OF YOU WHO ARE DOING THIS FOR OUR CANINE FRIENDS WHO HAVE SERVED THEIR COUNTRY WELL. THEY DESERVE A GOOD LIFE AFTER THEIR PATRIOTIC SERVICE.

  3. Jo says:

    I sense your joy of having your dogs…I am the same way with Retired MWD Aron F300. Thank you for sharing your story. I’m so lucky that my family and friends understand my love for, and wonderful relationship with, Aron. I took him out of Kirtland AFB kennel in Albuquerque, NM, and brought him home on July 15, 2011. The Kennel Master was absolutely wonderful through the entire adoption process and we have become very good friends, too. There are no words to express my love and adoration for my pet, Aron. Until someone has spent even a little time with an MWD, there is no way to appreciate how special they are. These retired dogs deserve to have the best retirement possible. My thanks to everyone who adopts an MWD because I can’t bring every one of them home!

  4. Chloe Wells says:

    Thank you so much for writing this story Bryan! You did an amazing job at capturing everything and was a tear jerker reading it! MWD Ddoc and I thank you for taking the time to highlight the fight that MWD’s go through both down range, and back home.

  5. Antoinette says:

    I had the pleasure of reading this article while traveling in NC this past weekend. Received a few strange glares as I wiped the tears from my eyes.

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