SILENT SOLDIERS

09.23.12

Back Home, Service Dogs Sleep in Beds—and Sniff the Sofa for Mines

Dogs, like other returning veterans, can have a long adjustment back into civilian life. Sandra McElwaine reports.

Soldiers aren’t the only ones struggling with their returns from Iraq and Afghanistan.

So when Air Force Major Cody Barker, who’d served in Afghanistan, and his wife, Carrie, decided to adopt Uzo, they had no idea what they were getting into.

All they knew was that the handsome, 8-year-old German shepherd who had earned his rank—Contract Working Dog Master Corporal—courageously fighting alongside Canadian forces in Afghanistan for five years was retiring and needed a good home.

When Carrie picked the dog up and brought him back to her household—which includes 5-year-old twins Colby and Carlee, the latter of whom is disabled and has her own therapy dog (a yellow Labrador named Sunshine), and her father, John, a Vietnam vet still suffering from PTSD—Uzo was not quite the gentleman she expected.

The new dog was incredibly nervous and on edge, patrolling the halls, sniffing in closets, and climbing on and under furniture. Whenever a helicopter flew over their home in Park City, Utah, he would stare up, wagging his tail furiously.

“He really loved helicopters,” Carrie says.

But two months later, when she learned from his former trainer and handler, Nelson Brown, that Uzo had been trained and then deployed to sniff out explosives and attack on command, she began to understand his anxieties and bizarre behavior.

He had never lived in a house, had a family, or even slept in a bed.

Though his combat record remains classified, Uzo was a Special Forces dog, with training similar to that given to Cairo, the now-famous Belgian shepherd able to detect 35 different types of explosives who accompanied the Navy SEALs in their raid on Osama bin Laden’s compound in Pakistan.

During Uzo’s years in Afghanistan, Brown, a civilian who is still in country, credits the dog with at least 20 finds of either IEDs or weapons caches, along with more than 200 “dismounted patrols” through Taliban-controlled territory.

Though Uzo’s military record is sealed, the dog’s biggest coup, said Brown, was inserting by helicopter with his soldier buddies into a Taliban-infested stronghold, where the soldiers used large demolition charges to destroy key enemy infiltration routes. It was the largest Canadian operation of its kind since World War II, the trainer adds, and is now taught at the Royal Military College of Canada.

Like many other returning veterans, it has taken Uzo many months to adjust to civilian life. After striking up a fast friendship with Sunshine, Carlee’s therapy dog, Uzo forged what Carrie calls “ a spiritual bond” with Colby, her other twin. He slept on Colby’s bed and trailed along in his wake, “grieving” when his friend left for school. From there, Uzo also became close to her father, John, accompanying him on visits to a nearby VA hospital for treatment.

“When someone is good to your kids and your family, you are so grateful,” says Carrie. ”Uzo deserves respect, devotion, and loyalty. He is a spectacular soul.”

And he’s not the only one.

Sergeant First Class Gabe, a fun-loving, 9-year-old yellow Labrador who was acquired by the Army after being rescued from a Texas puppy pound, spent 13 months in 2007 and 2008 in the deserts of Iraq with his handler Chuck Shuck, searching for weapons and explosives over 170 combat patrols.

Labradors have the ability to smell a substance in an explosive to find it before it detonates, and hundreds of carefully vetted ones have joined the war effort.

“He loves to chase balls,” says Shuck. ‘That’s how he would be rewarded when he sniffed out weapons. I’d give him a ball. He was incredibly brave, he really didn’t know what he was getting into. He was totally focused [and] would go out ahead off-leash and sniff out explosives and ammunition.”

Before the Barkers took him in, Contract Working Dog Master Corporal Uzo had never lived in a house, had a family, or even slept in a bed.

When their tour was up, the duo return to America. Shuck went on to become a drill sergeant and Gabe was assigned to a new handler.

It was an extremely brief encounter.

He adamantly refused to work with his new boss, either sitting and staring straight ahead or rolling around on the ground. No amount of cajoling or retraining could coax him to budge.

Ultimately, Gabe was allowed to retire and was adopted by Shuck. (When war dogs retire, their handlers have first dibs on adopting their charges, but for some this is not possible and many returning canines are left scrambling to find a good home.)

But the noise, especially machine-gun fire, and fallout from his service have left Gabe with his own form of PTSD—a terror of thunder and lightning, and Shuck keeps a supply of tranquilizers on hand for when the Labrador gets the shakes.

But mostly, Gabe lolls around his home in Columbia, S.C., occasionally rousing himself to chase a squirrel. He sleeps on the sofa or in Shuck’s bed, loves pizza and junk food, and has gained about 25 pounds.

When he does go out, though, Gabe has become a star among dogs—appearing regularly on local TV and at schools, and with more than 40,000 fans on Facebook. Recently, he even threw out the first pitch at a Los Angeles Dodgers game. And next month, he’ll stroll the red carpet at the Beverly Hilton in L.A. to receive the 2012 Hero Dog Award at the American Humane Association’s Hero Dogs Award banquet.

“He’s a big old lab who gives big wet sloppy kisses,” says Shuck. ”He’s my boy and I’m his dad.”

For those dogs not lucky enough to reunite with their trainers, there are several organizations that aid civilians in navigating the long and complex adoption process. Debbie Kandoll, of Las Cruces, N.M., established Military Working Dog Adoptions in 2008, after encountering incredible hurdles in her own attempt to adopt a returning service dog to increase awareness of these heroes who need homes, and to help potential owners navigate the process.

She recalls encountering endless red tape, making at least 50 phone calls to various military bases across the county in order to locate, pinpoint, and finally adopt her German shepherd, Narcotics Detection Dog MWD Benny B163.

“It was incredibly frustrating,” she says.

Over the years, she has facilitated the transporting, homing, and re-homing of more than 250 dogs. “People need to about know” the service dogs, she says. “They are amazing and have saved many of thousands of lives.”

The Marshall Legacy Institute in Arlington, Va., which sends mine-detection dogs to 11 countries, including Iraq and Afghanistan, to help remove the landmines that often outlast the conflicts during which they were laid, and also helps place the dogs they deploy with families on their return.

Recently, they helped place Blek, an 11-year-old black German shepherd who had spent seven years locating mines in and around the fields of Baghdad, with Ken Gardner, a retired Marine major in Alexandria, Va.

Blek, now somewhat arthritic and hard of hearing, is still a patrol dog, says Gardner, who calls his new companion “an incredible pleasure.”

An added bonus, quips the former Marine: “I have the most mine-free house in the entire state of Virginia.”