This framed photo shows Homer Finley at Front Royal, Virginia with an unnamed Saint Bernard.

This framed photo shows Homer Finley at Front Royal, Virginia with an unnamed Saint Bernard.

My heart dropped when I received word recently that Homer Finley had died.

As the last surviving member of the 1st Marine War Dog Platoon, he was a living link to the earliest days of our nation’s military working dog program. At the time he served, he was part of an experimental, unproven initiative.

“Many of the Marine troops doubted that dogs could be put to any practical use in combat and grumbled that they would just get in the way.” (War Animals by Robin Hutton, page 62)

Joining the war effort

News of Pearl Harbor traveled like wildfire through Southside High School in Elmira, New York, where Homer Finley attended. Many 12th-graders were old enough to enlist right away and abruptly left school to join the war effort. Sixteen-year-old Finley and his 11th-grade buddies eyed the seniors with envy. He wanted to enlist, too, but he was underage.

Finley and his best friend begged their parents to sign permission forms allowing them to enlist at 17. Finley’s dad finally acquiesced, but his best friend’s parents said no.

The first weeks

Attracted by the blue uniform and stories of Marine fighting tactics, Finley chose to enlist as a Marine. After a 10-week boot camp in Parris Island, South Carolina, he reported for duty at Naval Air Station Jacksonville in Florida. His first night involved a 12-to-4 watch, patrolling inside an administrative building. He walked around with a gun that had no ammunition.

Other responsibilities included working Main Gate security to ensure service members weren’t sneaking in alcohol or other contraband.

Monitoring office buildings wasn’t quite the job he had envisioned. So, when he heard an announcement seeking volunteers for a “job involving dogs,” he raised his hand.

Learning the ropes

When he arrived at Front Royal, Virginia, he beheld acres of dog houses.

At the time, the military did not have its own dog procurement or breeding programs. Instead, the fledgling war dog effort relied on donations. Breeders offered stock from their kennels. Civilians donated their personal pets.

“Everyday Americans making animal donations were proud of making profoundly personal sacrifices. They were giving up cherished pets freely and unconditionally, receiving in turn neither compensation nor any guarantee their dogs would return safely at the end of the war. Donating their dogs was a patriotic act and a way for Americans to become personally invested in the war effort.” (Hutton, 9)

At Front Royal, “we started obedience training with dogs we thought would be useful,” recalled Finley. The training involved quite a bit of trial and error, since the military had not yet developed formal training protocols.

One exercise involved hide-and-seek. The instructor asked one group of handlers and their dogs to hide and camouflage themselves in the landscape so the other dogs couldn’t find them. (Editor’s note: This cracked me up, because clearly they were underestimating dogs’ noses.)

Mr. Finley and a Beagle mix crawled into some brush. As they waited to be found, Mr. Finley inadvertently dozed off in the warm sunshine. The mutt barked sharply as “finders” approached, giving away their position.

Back to Jacksonville

At the end of the training program, Mr. Finley returned to NAS-Jacksonville with three sentry dogs and instructions to train two Navy sailors in how to handle them. The three handlers lived away from the main base activity, tending to the dogs and their kennels.

Not long after, Mr. Finley received orders to report to Camp Lejeune, where USMC had established its own dog training facility. That’s where he began preparing for his eventual deployment with the 1st Marine War Dog Platoon.

Patriotism

What struck me when talking with Mr. Finley is how many individual acts of patriotism were involved in creating the U.S. War Dog program:

  • 17-year-old Finley wanted to enlist to help his country.
  • His parents said yes, knowing their son could be injured or killed.
  • Families—and even children—donated their personal pets.
  • A Hollywood dog trainer helped the 1st Marine War Dog platoon prepare for deployment.

…and the list goes on. It was a collective effort, involving citizens from all over the United States.

“’Pop, if Jack can save lives, I want him to go in,’ declared 11-year-old Bobby Verhaeghe through tears.” (Hutton, 75; Jack was one of the dogs Homer Finley worked with.)

Chance

The other thing that struck me…Several things happened along the way that could have delayed or prevented Mr. Finley’s deployment. For example, the 1st Marine War Dog platoon traveled by train from Camp Lejeune to Camp Pendleton for the next stage of their training. The journey took five days, and the dogs traveled by boxcar in crates. At every stop, the handlers got off the train to exercise the dogs.

At one spot in Texas, the conductor announced an extended stop. Several Marines, including Homer Finley, decided to run into town to buy a case of beer. As they were returning, the train whistle blew. They double-timed it, barely making the train before it pulled away. What if they had missed their ride?

Another example: During training in California, Mr. Finley and a couple of his comrades had a day of leave. They went to Laguna Beach, where they happened to meet some girls who lived in Hollywood. One of the Marines managed to get a phone number, and all three applied for leave so they could see these gals again. Their CO approved the leave but said, “You can’t go into L.A. because of the Zoot Suit Riots.” The group went anyway, rationalizing that Hollywood was not the same as L.A.

When the Lieutenant in charge of the 1st Marine War Dog Platoon found out the group had gone to the city against orders, Mr. Finley thought this might be the end of his military career. The Gunnery Sergeant said, “I’m afraid I’m going to have to throw the book at you.” Finley breathed a sigh of relief at the punishment: “restricted to barracks for one week.”

Preparing for deployment

At Camp Pendleton, Finley’s platoon trained in small boats. “There was lots of upchucking,” he said. “Even some of the dogs got seasick.”

“Hollywood dog trainer Carl Spitz had pioneered the use of hand signals to direct animals from beyond camera range. He trained the terrier that played Toto in the Wizard of Oz… At Pendleton, the dogs and men of the 1st Platoon received accelerated training from Spitz.” (Hutton, 9, 61)

They eventually found their sea legs.

“On October 4, 1943, the regiment set sail for Empress Augusta Bay, Bougainville, in the Solomon Islands. It would be the first time the dogs and their handlers would be under hostile fire.” (Hutton, 63)

Homer Finley in Bougainville

The 1st Marine War Dog Platoon included 24 dogs. Three of those were messenger dogs—Caesar, Jack and Thor. Homer Finley was one of six messenger dog handlers.

“The messenger dog was a lifeline between units—a reliable conveyor of communication in dense jungles where telephone wires had been cut or had never existed.” These dogs “posed a difficult target for the enemy. He could find his way in daylight or darkness, through any kind of weather or terrain, and he was especially effective in the jungle.”

“Every messenger required two handlers; the dog ran from one master to the other.” (Hutton, 28, 29)

War Animals describes the Bougainville campaign in detail. It’s a great read. Bottom line: the dogs and their handlers quickly proved their worth.

“The dogs became the eyes and ears of the Marines.” (Hutton, 63)

Recollections

“I loved working with the dogs,” said Finley. “It was rewarding that the program worked. The dogs saved lives.”

Shortly after Finley got to Bougainville, the Marines reassigned him to the Raider regiment and gave him a crash course in demolitions. From that point on, he traveled with interpreters who tried to talk enemy combatants out of pillboxes and caves. Finley’s job: to sling charges into openings to seal up hiding spots.

A subsequent injury in Guam resulted in medical evacuation to Hawaii. Once recovered, he returned to the mainland U.S. to finish out his four-year military service commitment.

MWDTSA remembrance

I never imagined I’d have the opportunity to meet a WWII handler, particularly one in my county.

One day, many months ago, I was staffing a MWDTSA information table at Chuck and Don’s Pet Food and Supplies in Longmont, Colorado. Hosting educational events is one of my favorite parts of volunteering with MWDTSA. Occasionally, veterans or family/friends of active-duty handlers will stop by to introduce themselves. That particular day, a customer said, “You’ve got to meet my neighbor Homer Finley. He handled dogs in World War II and even knew Caesar!”

My first meeting with Mr. Finley took place in late summer 2019. When I think of 94-year-olds, I envision canes, walkers or wheelchairs. Mr. Finley used none of these. Still ambulatory, he shook my hand firmly and spoke with the steady voice of someone decades younger.

This photo shows Homer Finley at his writing desk with a pen.

Above: Homer Finley sits at his writing desk, September 16, 2019.

Notebook and pen in hand, I took copious notes as he shared about his time in the service and with the dogs. Humble and down-to-earth, he remarked, “Really, I’m just a regular guy. All of us wanted to help in WWII. I don’t know why people are making such a big deal about my service. You know, you are the third person to interview me recently.”

The first was Robin Hutton, who included Mr. Finley’s account in her book War Animals. The second was a researcher from University of Colorado-Boulder, who hoped Mr. Finley might have insights about Bougainville. And then me.

What Mr. Finley described is a level of patriotism that I have not seen in my lifetime. The U.S. rallied together after Pearl Harbor. Everyone wanted to do their part.

Just a few weeks ago, Mr. Finley celebrated his 95th birthday. He was still walking unassisted. He completely redefined for me what it means to age with grace. His zest for life and sense of humor will continue to inspire me for the rest of my years.

Featured image at top: This 1943 photo shows Homer Finley at Front Royal with an unnamed Saint Bernard. In World War II, the military utilized the Saint Bernard breed for hauling ammunition. Photographer unknown.

*********

Ryan Warner of Colorado Public Radio captured Mr. Finley’s voice in this recent interview: https://www.cpr.org/show-segment/remembering-marine-private-first-class-homer-finley-of-longmont/

 

To emphasize the need to prevent dog heat stroke, this graphic demonstrates how quickly a car heats up inside at various outside temperatures.

Military working dog handlers will tell you their greatest K9 first aid priority is to prevent dog heatstroke. On this first day of summer, MWDTSA is honored to share the following safety information from Colorado State University’s James L. Voss Veterinary Teaching Hospital, reprinted with permission of the author.

by Kristen Browning-Blas

Never leave a dog in a vehicle in the sun, even if the temperature is mild and the windows are open. In a matter of minutes, a K9 can become overheated while exercising, playing or just by being left in the heat with no water or shade. Heat exhaustion can quickly become a life-threatening heatstroke, which can cause organ failure and death.

Always provide access to fresh water and shade – especially in the heat of the day.

Obesity and pre-existing medical conditions put pets at much higher risk of heat exhaustion and heatstroke. Puppies, elderly dogs, and dogs with dark-colored or long-haired coats are more at risk, and flat-faced breeds, including bulldogs and pugs, are more susceptible to overheating.

If you are concerned about a pet (or person) that is locked in a hot car, contact your local law enforcement. The Colorado legislature passed a law in 2017 that provides immunity from prosecution for civilians who break into a locked vehicle to rescue a dog, cat, or at-risk person.

​Signs of heat exhaustion

  • Restlessness and agitation
  • Heavy panting and rapid breathing
  • Excessive drooling that then turns to thick tenacious saliva
  • Bright red gums and tongue
  • Dry tacky gums and mucous membranes
  • Weakness or struggling to maintain balance
  • Vomiting or diarrhea
  • Body temperature of 104 degrees or greater
  • Elevated heart rate (tachycardia)
  • Confusion or disorientation

Signs of dog heatstroke

  • White or blue gums
  • Labored, noisy breathing
  • Frantic panting or wheezing
  • Rapid heart rate and drooling
  • Uncontrollable urination and or defecation
  • Vomiting or diarrhea
  • Lethargy or unwillingness to move
  • Lack of coordination
  • Unconsciousness

What to do if a dog is suffering from heatstroke

  • Move the animal to shade or a cooler environment
  • Provide cool, fresh drinking water
  • Cool the dog down with water or covered ice packs on the belly only
  • Do not force-feed water if the pet cannot drink freely on its own
  • Do not submerge the pet, this may cause further harm when temperature regulation is impaired
  • Do not cover, crate, or otherwise confine the pet
  • Even if your dog is responding well to cooling treatments, it is imperative that you contact (and go to) an emergency veterinarian

 

This is a 2019 photo of Military Working Dogs National Monument at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas. A bronze sculpture of a handler stands with his gun ready. Arrayed before him are bronze sculptures of four military working dogs representing the four main breeds used by the military. MWDTSA provided a memorial wreath, displayed on the monument. MWDTSA is providing a wreath for Memorial Day 2020, as well.

This is a 2019 photo of Military Working Dogs National Monument at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas. A bronze sculpture of a handler stands with his gun ready. Arrayed before him are bronze sculptures of four military working dogs representing the four main breeds used by the military. MWDTSA provided a memorial wreath, displayed on the monument. MWDTSA is providing a wreath for Memorial Day 2020, as well.

On this Memorial Day Weekend 2020, the Military Working Dog Team Support Association is grateful to all U.S. military working dog handlers and K9s, past and present, who work tirelessly to protect our troops and our freedom. These teams often serve in front of the front lines, checking for hidden dangers such as improvised explosive devices and ambushes. They save lives.

The following military working dog handlers have died since September 11, 2001.

This list also includes some handlers from coalition forces. We thank you all for your service and sacrifice.

On Memorial Day 2020, please join us in reflecting on each name below:

Sgt Joshua Ashley, USMC, KIA 19 July 2012

Sgt Aaron J. Blasjo, US Army, KIA 29 May 2011

MA2 Sean Brazas, US Navy, KIA 30 May 2012

MA2 Michael Brodsky, US Navy, WIA/died 21 July 2012

Sgt Adam L. Cann, USMC, KIA 5 January 2006

SSgt Brian M. Carragher, US Air Force, killed 18 September 2010

LCpl Peter J. Clore, USMC, KIA 28 May 2011

Cpl Keaton G. Coffey, USMC, KIA 24 May 2012

OSSN Tyler Connely, US Navy, died 16 January 2002

Sgt Zainah C. Creamer, US Army, KIA 12 January 2011

LCpl William H. Crouse I and MWD Cane, USMC, KIA 21 December 2010

SSgt Christopher Diaz, USMC, KIA 28 September 2011

Cpl Max W. Donahue, USMC, KIA 6 August 2010

MA1 John Douangdara and MPC Bart, US Navy, KIA 6 August 2011

SSgt Raphael A. Futrell, US Army, died 25 March 2009

LtCol Daniel E. Holland, DVM, US Army, KIA 18 May 2006

SSgt James R. Ide V, US Army, KIA 29 August 2010

SrA Martin Kristiansen, Royal Danish Air Force, KIA 13 June 2010

Spc Robert W. Jones, US Army, died 6 January 2018

Sgt Dick A. Lee Jr., US Army, KIA 26 April 2012

Cpl Dustin J. Lee, USMC, KIA 21 March 2007

SSgt John Mariana, US Army, died 28 November 2012

TSgt Jason L. Norton, US Air Force, KIA 22 January 2006

Sgt Mycal L. Prince, US Army, KIA 15 September 2011

SFC Gregory A. Rodriguez, US Army, KIA 2 September 2008

LCpl Kenneth M. Rowe, Royal Army UK, KIA 24 July 2008

MA2 Christopher L. Roybal, US Navy, killed 1 October 2017

PFC Colton W. Rusk, USMC, KIA 6 December 2010

Sapper Darren Smith, Royal Australian Army, KIA 7 June 2010

Cpl David M. Sonka, USMC, KIA 4 May 2013

Cpl Jeffrey R. Standfest, USMC, KIA 16 June 2010

Spc Brandon K. Steffy, US Army, KIA 25 October 2009

SSgt Donald T. Tabb, US Army, KIA 5 February 2008

LCpl Abraham Tarwoe, USMC, KIA 12 April 2012

LCpl Liam R. Tasker, Royal Army UK, KIA 1 March 2011

Cpl Kory D. Wiens, US Army, KIA 6 July 2007

Sgt Jorden Williams, US Army, died 02 January 2019

Sgt Christopher M. Wrinkle, USMC, died 31 July 2011

 

Photo credit: Heidi C. Rose-Fiscus

 

This image shows the cover of No Ordinary Dog by retired Navy SEAL Will Chesney and co-author Joe Layden.

This image shows the cover of No Ordinary Dog by retired Navy SEAL Will Chesney and co-author Joe Layden.Will Chesney, an “ordinary” high school student living in a Southeast Texas trailer park, had a big dream—to become a Navy SEAL. In a gripping autobiography, No Ordinary Dog, he chronicles his journey from enlistment through SEAL training and multiple deployments. Along the way, Chesney became a dog handler, with MWD Cairo as his four-legged partner. Yes, he was “dad” to the dog who served during the 2011 Osama Bin Laden raid.

A surprising book

The title and introduction suggest a story about a single military working dog, but this book covers wider territory. Told chronologically, the chapters contain a story within a story. The first thread relates to the Navy SEAL mindset.

Every SEAL—two-legged and four-legged—must have rock-solid self-control. “The SEALS want men who cannot only handle adversity but who will not let their emotions get in the way of completing a job,” explains Chesney.

For humans, this means compartmentalizing the bad stuff and setting it aside in order to maintain laser focus on the mission at hand. For military working dogs, this requires single-mindedly and fearlessly doing their job, amidst loud noise, chaos, and tempting distractions. Over time, the trauma of war can breach even the tightest compartmentalization.

The second thread, of course, explores the human-canine bond, particularly between Chesney and Cairo.

The book concludes with the two threads intertwined.

A seamless team

Chesney does not become a dog handler until Chapter 8, one-third of the way through the book. Readers watch the bond grow between Chesney and Cairo from the first meeting to complete trust—from early training to dangerous deployments.

The book describes the military’s procurement and training processes for military working dogs. It also covers the handlers’ learning curve, including the occupational hazards and challenges they face. The bruises and bites. The 24/7 demands of feeding, grooming, exercising, and training a dog, while also maintaining personal combat readiness. The logistics of deploying with a K9. And the complexity of skills such as fast-roping from a helicopter with a dog.

The narrative chronicles several missions, not just the Bin Laden raid, and details the harsh realities of war for both two- and four-legged service members. The sounds. The visuals. The loss.

This photo shows Will Chesney in uniform, kneeling beside MWD Cairo.

Will Chesney with MWD Cairo (Photo credit: United States Navy)


The catch-22 of a SEAL mindset

Resilience, perseverance, and focus carried Chesney through grueling months of SEAL training and eventual deployments. It kept him clear-minded during the Bin Laden raid and countless other missions.

As the book progresses, however, the very trait that seems most prized in a SEAL becomes problematic. How long can a person mentally set aside trauma and loss, before the images and feelings invade nighttime sleep and daytime functioning? How many explosions can concuss the brain before damage occurs?

“A decorated SEAL is not supposed to suffer from depression, because mental health issues are a sign of weakness, right? But that’s just bullshit.”


Will Chesney offers straight talk on PTSD and TBI 

“I understood the power of post-traumatic stress, the havoc it can wreak on your body as well as your mind, and the danger of pushing it all down inside to someplace where you think it can’t touch you. Except eventually it all boils up to the surface again,” says Chesney.

He describes his experience with PTSD in detail, including debilitating migraines. Doctors and specialists attempted to pinpoint the cause and find relief for the symptoms, to no avail initially. Play sessions with Cairo seemed to be the best medicine, providing temporary respites from the chronic pain and related depression.

Ultimately, Chesney adopted Cairo and provided his end-of-life care. The book ends in a bittersweet place, yet offers a sense of hope. No Ordinary Dog demonstrates the healing and redemptive nature of the human-canine bond.

Audience

Every public library needs this book, as well as high school and college libraries.

Family members and friends of veterans and active-duty military will benefit from reading it. Service members, past and present, will find things to relate to in Chesney’s story.

Anyone who studies history—particularly, regarding 9/11—will get a clearer portrait of what modern-day military deployment looks like. Most civilians today have no idea what the War on Terror has involved.

Mental health providers, doctors, and veterinarians will gain a more comprehensive picture of training, deployments, battlefield injuries and their aftermath, and the traumatic events and losses that two- and four-legged service members experience.

Will Chesney and co-writer Joe Layden have done a public service by sharing this story. It’s a fast-paced opportunity to understand more about today’s military and the role of K9s in keeping our service members safe. It’s a heart-felt tribute to the human-canine bond. But most importantly, it encourages people with PTSD and TBI to reach out for support.

“A lot of vets struggle with symptoms related to their service, and often they feel like they have to suffer in silence. Alone. I felt that way a lot of the time. But there is help, and I was fortunate to find it. I’d like to help others find it, as well.”


You can purchase the book here.

To learn how you can support currently-deployed military working dog teams, visit https://www.mwdtsa.org/.

 

This photo shows RMWD Aura before her health deteriorated. She is modeling with a FIFTY/FIFTY water bottle, etched with MWDTSA's logo.

This photo shows RMWD Aura before her health deteriorated. She is modeling with a FIFTY/FIFTY water bottle, etched with MWDTSA's logo.RMWD Aura N679 was one of us—a MWDTSA volunteer. She and her humans represented MWDTSA at educational events, a movie premiere, and more. So, her death on February 7, 2020, touched us all. Below are two tributes: the first by her mom Jesca Daniels and the second by Kayla Miller of Negative Image Photography, LLC. RMWD Aura N679, thank you for your service to our nation and to MWDTSA. Rest easy.

From Jesca Daniels

We just said goodbye to Aura and our hearts are broken.

Most of you know that Mark was Aura’s first and only handler in the Marine Corps. She came into our life in 2010. Mark had been a handler for six years at the time, but she was his first Malinois. And boy was she everything a Malinois should be—smart, energetic, loyal, energetic, determined, energetic…did I mention energetic?

She gave him a run for his money, but in the end she made him a better handler. They were a beautiful team to see in action. I first fell in love with her love for him. Little did I know I would go on to fall in love with her love for the girls and me.

An IED blast creates a new family

In 2013, they deployed to Afghanistan. Three months in, I got the call that both of them and six other Marines had been injured in an IED blast. I didn’t know it then, but we gained seven family members that day. I am forever grateful that they all survived, and I love each and every one of them.

Mark rehabilitated and eventually went back to full duty. After months of rehabilitating MWD Aura in-country, she and Mark reunited. In that moment, I knew that one day she would be ours. She already was. A few months later, Aura tore her cruciate ligament and had to have surgery to correct it. After the first surgery, she would go on to tear the other and require more procedures. This ultimately lead to her retirement. It was final; she was coming home.

This photo shows RMWD Aura's military vest, which includes a Guardians of the Night patch.

RMWD Aura sports her tactical vest harness with “Retired Guardians of the Night” patch. (Photo by Kayla Miller, Negative Image Photography, LLC)

On May 22, 2015, Aura came home to the girls and me while Mark was serving a year in Japan. I remember being so nervous about how she was going to do without him that I visited her at the kennels every week until it was time for her to come home.

I recall the exact moment she became my dog. I don’t say that to take away from the bond that she and Mark shared. I just mean that by the time she came home, I did not feel like I was taking care of his dog. She was part of the family. RMWD Aura put all of her heart into loving the girls and me, just as she had into loving and protecting her Dad. You guys know what happened next because you have loved us enough to follow her journey these past few years.

Beginning of the end

A little over a year ago, Aura started to not act like herself. It began with licking to a point she would lose control of her bladder, and being a bit off balance. As she progressed, she became unable to open her mouth very well to eat. RMWD Aura lost muscle tone all over her body and eventually was unable to get up or lay down without assistance. She would fall when she walked, and she genuinely seemed frightened of the world around her.

My spunky, energetic Velcro dog got to the point where instead of following me to every room, she would lift her head and sigh, but remain where she was. She lost interest in her KONG, which if you were lucky enough to have met her, you know was a big deal.

It got to the point where we were no longer looking for signs that it was time to let go, but rather we were trying to find a reason not to. After consulting several vets and specialists—and given her diagnoses—we knew that it was time to make the hard choice. RMWD Aura had MMM, DM, masses on her adrenal glands and spleen, and her quality of life was just not there.

The best last day

So, on February 7, 2020, we set out to give her the best last day ever. She had pizza, a donut, and Starbucks, her favorite things, and she got love from all of her people. As hard as it was, it was the best day she has had in a while. I think she knew we were going to let her be at peace.

With her family's help, RMWD Aura consumes one last Starbuck's Puppuccino.

RMWD Aura enjoys a final Starbuck’s Puppuccino. (Photo by Kayla Miller, Negative Image Photography, LLC)

She had a bit of her twinkle back, and I think, I hope, she felt covered with love. In the end, we decided we would all be with her. The girls didn’t want to be in the waiting area. They wanted RMWD Aura to know that we were all there, so we were. We all told her how much she was loved, and we held her and loved her until the end. It was one of the hardest moments of all of our lives, but it is a moment I am glad we all shared. We all got that closure, and she had us all there.

This heart-wrenching image shows Mark Daniels giving RMWD Aura a final embrace.

Family members embrace RMWD Aura in her final hour. (Photo by Kayla Miller, Negative Image Photography, LLC)

For the full album, showing RMWD Aura’s best last day, visit: https://www.facebook.com/AuraN679/

Gratitude

There are so many people we need to thank. First and foremost, Mission K9 Rescue. They provided vet care for Aura through all of this. And more than that, they have been a rock in our life as far as friendship and support. If it weren’t for them, we would not have had the time with her we did. Thank you from the bottom of my heart.

And Negative Image Photography, LLC, for capturing the final moments for us. I honestly didn’t think I wanted pictures, but now I am so grateful that we have them. We will absolutely cherish them forever. Thank you for making yourself available and for being a part of her last day. I know it couldn’t have been easy on you and I will never be able to thank you enough for the gift you gave us.

Military Working Dog Team Support Association, Inc. and Rocky Mountain Dawgs Project: you guys have literally become our family. Our lives are better because you are in them. And to everyone who has loved us, followed us, cheered for us, and cried with us, we are truly grateful for your presence in our life.

And finally, Aura, thank you for being my best friend. Thank you for always loving me and the girls no matter what we went through. Thank you for healing parts of me I didn’t even know were broken. You were the best girl and I hope that we brought you half the joy you gave to us. I love you forever and I will count every star until I see you again… Goodbye Love.

 

*********************

From Kayla Miller

As a photographer, I’m often hired to capture some of the happiest moments in people’s lives. Weddings, births, families playing… you know, LOVE in its happiest form. I’ve never been hired to capture love in its saddest form, until today.

Meet Aura, a retired United States Marine MWD. Aura and her handler (daddy) Mark met in 2010. They instantly shared a bond that all the instructors said was incredible, one of the best teams to ever come through their training.

A bond that heals

In March 2013, they were stationed in Afghanistan together. One day on their way back from patrol, they were both injured in an IED blast. Mark and Aura were thrown from their seats. He sustained a TBI with bleeding and bruising on the brain, along with back and neck injuries. Aura sustained a collapsed lung and heart arrhythmia. She was very anxious and couldn’t sleep.

They took her to the hospital to see Mark before he was flown stateside for medical care. When she saw he was ok, she climbed in his bed and slept for the first time since the accident. Aura had to stay in Afghanistan for treatment until they could have someone fly her back.

Mark’s wife says that finally being able to see Aura again motivated him through his rehabilitation. After he recovered, Mark went on to receive The Purple Heart medal. In 2015, Aura retired and went to live out the rest, best days, of her life with Mark and his family. Most of that time was just with Mark’s wife and daughters as he was deployed again.

They joined in on the bond and loved Aura so deeply. She was loved to the fullest and catered to until the very end. She had the best, last day a US Marine could ever dream of.

Reflections on RMWD Aura N679

Thank you isn’t enough to express my gratitude for your service. RIP Aura N679—End of Watch 2/7/2020.

This has been by far the hardest project I have ever taken on. I can’t say I did it with a smile on my face the whole time because that’s not true. While I did greet Aura and her family with smiles and warm wishes, I am still human and have emotions. It took everything I had in me to stay strong and not break down with them. I wasn’t strong enough and did in fact quietly break down. I become invested in the people whose lives I capture, fully invested. No matter the form of love I capture, just know I feel it, too.

As civilians, we have no idea what our soldiers go through to protect our country, so we can go where we want, when we want…so we can post on Facebook, have the jobs we want and have the things we want. Our soldiers sometimes aren’t always people. They are animals. Willing, able and brave enough to go where man cannot.

God Bless ALL of our soldiers.

This photo shows handlers and their dogs, along with Security Forces Museum Director Ken Neal, standing in front of Nemo's Memorial at Lackland Air Force Base. In the background is a wreath donated by MWDTSA in honor of Vietnam veteran dog handler Bob Throneburg.
This photo shows handlers and their dogs, along with Security Forces Museum Director Ken Neal, standing in front of Nemo's Memorial at Lackland Air Force Base. In the background is a wreath donated by MWDTSA in honor of Vietnam veteran dog handler Bob Throneburg.Pictured here: MWDTSA is humbled to provide a wreath to honor the memory of Bob Throneburg. Handlers and MWDs from the 802nd SFS K9 Section—along with Ken Neal, Security Forces Museum Foundation—installed the wreath at Nemo’s Memorial on Friday, February 7, 2020, Lackland Air Force Base, San Antonio, Texas. (Photo credit: TSgt Joseph Williams, NCOIC, Security Forces Museum)

On February 5, 2020, Vietnam veteran dog handler Bob Throneburg passed away at his South Carolina home. His obituary contains details on the memorial service.

The news spread quickly through the military working dog community, along with a 2017 article from Duke Energy’s Illumination. Duke Energy has graciously granted us permission to reprint this piece below.

As you reflect on Bob Throneburg’s life and legacy, we invite you to share memories and thoughts in the Comment section below. Rest easy and thank you for inspiring our nation’s MWD program.

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A soldier and the dog that saved his life

Nemo saved airman Bob Throneburg’s life during the Vietnam War and became a symbol of heroism

by Elizabeth Leland

Waiting until the cover of darkness, in the suffocating heat of Vietnam, Air Force airman Bob Throneburg started out on patrol with his war dog, Nemo. It was December 4, 1966. Sixty Viet Cong had infiltrated Saigon’s Tan Son Nhut Air Base the night before with a brutal mortar attack, and enemy stragglers remained hidden.

Nemo’s charge was to find them. He was trained to be a killer.

On Veterans Day, November 11, he is celebrated as one of the most heroic of the U.S. K9 Corps, which formed in 1942 and deployed more than 4,000 dogs during the Vietnam War.

That night in Vietnam, the German shepherd’s ears shot up. His body stiffened, hackles raised, tail rigid. He sensed the intruder before Throneburg saw him. The guerrilla tried to flee, but Throneburg fired his M16.

It was the first time in combat for Throneburg, 22, from Albemarle, N.C., who had arrived in Vietnam five months earlier. He couldn’t stop to dwell on the deadly encounter. He and Nemo, alongside another soldier and his dog, continued on their mission.

“The last thing I remember, it was 3 a.m. and I was hiding behind a bulldozer,” Throneburg said.

For a second time, Nemo’s ears shot up, alerting Throneburg to an intruder.

Throneburg turned Nemo loose.

The Viet Cong fired several shots from his AK-47. Throneburg took a hit in his left shoulder, knocking him to the ground. Nemo took one on his nose and lost his right eye. Nemo continued fighting, giving Throneburg time to call for backup.

The other U.S. soldier pulled Throneburg to safety.

“Then I started fading away,” Throneburg said. “Nemo came back and crawled on top of me.”

And there Nemo lay, guarding his handler the way he was taught, refusing to budge. “On a good day, he was just a normal laid-back sentry dog, easygoing,” Throneburg said. But when you got him mad, “he was about as mean as a brokeback snake.”

It took a former handler to finally pry Nemo off.

In a 1967 article in Air Force News, the base veterinarian was quoted as saying: “He was in pretty bad shape. I had to do skin grafts on his face and perform a tracheotomy to help him breathe. His right eye had to be removed, but even this didn’t lessen his ability. It only made his other senses – hearing and smell – more sensitive.”

Throneburg and Nemo were reunited one last time at the base hospital. In a photo taken that day, Nemo leans in toward a smiling Throneburg as the handler scratches his companion’s neck. They never saw each other again.

Left: Nemo (date unknown), Right: Bob Throneburg in 2017

Throneburg was airlifted to a hospital in Japan and underwent five surgeries over seven months to repair his shoulder. “It hurts every day of my life,” he said. “Every day. It never goes away. It always hurts. I’m starting to lose quite a bit of mobility.”

Nemo recuperated at Tan Son Nhut before retiring from active duty. He became the face of the K9 Corps, used to help recruit thousands of dogs into the service. He died in 1972 at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, where his kennel stands as a memorial.

Bob Throneburg received two Purple Hearts and the Bronze Star medal.

Back in North Carolina, he earned a degree in architectural drafting and took a job in 1976 in the drafting department at McGuire Nuclear Station. Bob retired from Duke Energy in 1999 but returned in 2001 and works as a contractor in the planning department at the Catawba Nuclear Station in South Carolina. He is 73.

He and his wife, Patricia, live in Gaffney, S.C., with their 4-year-old great-granddaughter, Elizabeth Jade – and two rescue Portuguese water dogs, Maggie and Bessie. Over the years, they’ve kept other dogs and they plan to have more. But for Throneburg, none can ever compare with Nemo, the dog who saved his life.

“Your sentry dogs become a part of you, a part of your being,” he said. “You work with them so closely and you depend on them and they depend on you. That’s why they call them dog teams.”

An inscription Throneburg wrote for a war dog memorial in Tampa, Fla., reflects the depth of his feelings:

Brave beyond words.

Ferocious without self-regard.

Bonds never broken.

Loyal till death.

Defender of the night.

He was a war dog.

Stay back, handler down!

 

About Nemo

Nemo, serial No. A534 of the 377th Security Police K-9, was returned to the United States and spent his retirement at the Department of Defense Dog Center at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio. He died there in December 1972.

This photo shows a retired military working dog who attended a Petco Foundation Helping Heroes fundraising event.

The Petco Foundation is investing $5,000 in MWDTSA’s care package program! This grant will help purchase supplies that can be hard to find in a combat environment. We send items such as thermometers, paw protection, grooming products, and collapsible water bowls to enhance safety and comfort for our four-legged troops. Many of the teams we support serve in remote areas and harsh climates. They regularly tell us they value the supplies we send each quarter.

Since its founding in 2006, MWDTSA has sent over a million dollars of care packages to deployed MWD teams. “These packages are the only piece of mail that some MWD teams will receive during a combat deployment. This grant from the Petco Foundation is an integral part of our quarterly care package program. We are grateful for the steadfast generosity of the Petco Foundation and their supporters,” said Nikki Rohrig, MWDTSA’s President.

The Petco Foundation’s annual Helping Heroes campaign funded the MWDTSA grant. The campaign, which takes place each October in Petco locations nationwide, supports the life-changing work of service, therapy and working animals.

For more information about MWDTSA, visit https://www.mwdtsa.org/. For more on the Petco Foundation, visit petcofoundation.org and join the conversation on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram by using the hashtag #HelpingHeroes.

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About Military Working Dog Team Support Association, Inc.

A national, all-volunteer 501(c)(3) nonprofit, MWDTSA supports Military Working Dog teams in the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines, and Coast Guard. Each team consists of a dog and a handler, and their mission is force protection—explosives detection, tracking, patrolling, specialized search, and drug detection. They put their own lives at risk to save the lives of other soldiers and civilians every day. To learn more about how you can help MWDTSA support both ends of the leash, contact president@mwdtsa.org or visit https://www.mwdtsa.org/.

About the Petco Foundation

At the Petco Foundation, we believe that every animal deserves to live its best life. Since 1999, we’ve invested more than $260 million in lifesaving animal welfare work to make that happen. With our more than 4,000 animal welfare partners, we inspire and empower communities to make a difference by investing in adoption and medical care programs, spay and neuter services, pet cancer research, service and therapy animals, and numerous other lifesaving initiatives. Through our Think Adoption First program, we partner with Petco stores and animal welfare organizations across the country to increase pet adoptions. So far, we’ve helped more than 6 million pets find their new loving families, and we’re just getting started. Visit petcofoundation.org to learn more about how you can get involved.

 

Four elementary school students collaborate on researching a military working dog as part of a 3rd- and 4th-grade lesson plan.

Looking for a military-related lesson plan to spice up social studies?

MWDTSA volunteer Wendy Sotos is studying to become a Certified Humane Education Specialist. As part of her coursework, she has developed a lesson plan about military working dogs for 3rd and 4th graders. It’s free, and any interested teacher or home-school parent can download it below.

Lesson plan overview

The curriculum entails reading, writing, group work, a creative project, and public speaking focused on the meanings of “hero” and “memorial.” Students will hone critical thinking skills as they learn about the roles of dogs in the military. It’s also a creative way to observe National K9 Veteran’s Day, Memorial Day, or Veteran’s Day.

 

Click image above to download full curriculum.

 

About the author

A freelance writer and published author, Wendy loves animals. Over the years, she’s served with Labrador Life Line and Nikela (which saves African wildlife, including rhinos). MWDTSA is excited to share her passion for dogs and education.

When asked what led her to create this lesson plan, Wendy replied, “I have always loved learning about war dogs from history. Their contributions have been underplayed, if acknowledged at all. A way to remedy this is to teach future generations of children about the sacrifices of these heroic animals. I want to help kids learn about these dogs who fought for our country. I hope to create appreciation for military working dogs and their human counterparts who protect our freedom.”

As you utilize Wendy’s curriculum, please share your experiences and stories in the Comments section below. What insights did you and your students gain via the activities in this lesson plan? We welcome your suggestions for enhancing the curriculum.

Wendy’s next project is a service learning plan for 5th and 6th grade students, focused on military working dog teams. Stay tuned!

For information on how you can support these intrepid teams, visit https://www.mwdtsa.org/support-military-working-dog-teams/ or write to president@mwdtsa.org.

Photo credit: iStock by Getty Images/Wavebreakmedia

Photo: Active duty and Vietnam veteran dog handlers stand before the Georgia State Capital in 2007, a few weeks after Dixie Whitman and Ken Besecker founded MWDTSA. That day, Georgia Governor Sonny Perdue signed MWDTSA’s request proclaiming March 22, 2007 as Military Dog Handler Day in Georgia.

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Military Working Dog Team Support Association, Inc. (MWDTSA) began as a labor of love, co-founded by German Shepherd Dog enthusiast Dixie Whitman and Vietnam veteran dog handler Ken Besecker. Here’s a glimpse of how it all started.

Meet Ken Besecker…

“The relationship between dog and man is an unbreakable bond,” says Ken Besecker, who experienced this truism firsthand in Vietnam.

During the Vietnam War, the military classified K9s as equipment, not soldiers. But as Besecker and other veterans can attest, the estimated 4,200 military working dogs in Vietnam provided a variety of military skills. They tracked, scouted, and protected. They offered companionship, and occasionally, much-needed comic relief during this dark period of history.

Ken Besecker fell into the MWD world by happenstance. While attending the Infantry Officer Basic Course at Fort Benning, Georgia, a Captain from the U.S. Army Scout Dog Training Detachment asked if Ken would be interested in working with dogs. Ken’s affirmative response led to an assignment with the Scout Dog Detachment. Ultimately, he served in Vietnam as Commander of the 62nd Infantry Platoon (Combat Tracker) and Training Officer at the United States Army Republic of Vietnam (USARV) Dog Training Detachment.

MWD handlers and their comrades entrusted their lives to K9s in Vietnam. “The dogs endured heat, rain, leeches, jungle vines, elephant grass, and many other discomforts,” reports Besecker, “just to hear ‘good dog’ and receive a pat on the side or a scratch on the head.”

They acted heroically, like the humans they protected.

“Vietnam veterans tell of dogs lying beside their wounded buddies or continuing to track or scout or guard in the face of any danger,” adds Besecker.

In response to one particular mission, the military awarded an entire 62nd Tracker team a Bronze Star with a “V” for valor, citing heroism in combat. Since Otis, Tracker Dog number T019, did not have a uniform, the Division Assistant Commander pinned the Bronze Star on a yellow towel. This way, Otis could wear his award, too. Otis, by the way, was one of the few dogs to come home after the war.

Toward the end of the U.S. involvement in Vietnam, Ken Besecker traveled all over the country to pick dogs to return to the U.S. for reassignment. “It felt great to watch those first 50 dogs leave on planes for the U.S.,” he recalls. “It wasn’t until after the war that I learned most MWDs in Vietnam were declared ‘surplus,’ as if they were unneeded equipment, and left behind to face euthanasia or worse.” Only 204 returned to the U.S.

Besecker wants to ensure the memory of these MWDs stays alive and that people know the important roles these K9 heroes served in Vietnam and continue to serve in conflicts today, protecting countless lives.

Enter Dixie Whitman…

Dixie has studied German Shepherd Dogs for 46 years, fascinated in particular by their tracking skills—the ability to follow an invisible trail and pick up scents left hours or days ago. The first web site she ever visited? The Vietnam Dog Handlers Association (VDHA), a group of veterans from the Vietnam War. The site contained a Q&A feature, so Dixie started asking questions.

Ken Besecker was one of several Vietnam veterans who answered those queries. He shared about the Vietnam dogs and their handlers. He described the tragic end many of these MWDs faced and the shameful welcome Vietnam veterans received upon their return home.

Dixie recalls, “It became clear to me that many of these veterans had never heard a simple thank you for their service.” She set out to rectify this.

Through the VDHA dialogue, Dixie discovered that Ken lived less than 200 miles away. In 2002, she invited several Georgia-based Vietnam handlers to the Georgia Governor’s office. That’s where she met Ken and his wife Liz, face-to-face, for the first time. Dixie and Ken discovered they knew many people in common, as both were involved in the sport of dogs in Georgia.

Over the next four years, Dixie spent her own time and money sending care packages to deployed handlers and their dogs. Additionally, she helped organize events at Fort Benning. In 2006, Ken suggested establishing a nonprofit organization to facilitate fundraising and reduce Dixie’s out-of-pocket expenditures.

“I wasn’t thrilled with the idea,” Dixie said, “because I had no idea how to run a nonprofit.  But Ken and I met at a reunion of his unit, the 62nd Combat Trackers, and discussed everything from a code of ethics to articles of incorporation. He fronted the money to hire an attorney to review our paperwork. And at last, we got Lois Lerner’s signature on a 501(c)(3) letter.” The Military Working Dog Team Support Association officially launched on November 13, 2006.

Reflecting on the early years

In preparation for its 10th anniversary in 2016, MWDTSA invited co-founders Ken Besecker and Dixie Whitman to reminisce about the organization’s humble beginnings.  The following interview and the historical background above originally appeared in the November 2016 issue of Kennel Talk.

MWDTSA: What were some of the challenges in getting MWDTSA off the ground?

KEN BESECKER: We didn’t have any money or previous nonprofit experience. The nonprofit designation was vital for making fundraising easier, but it took some time to get that engine started.

DIXIE WHITMAN:  Because we had no initial funding, we still did much of the MWDTSA work on our own dimes. Also, we were (and are!) a niche group, meaning we must focus on public education since many people don’t know about MWDs.  Folks don’t realize how impactful these dog teams are, and therefore we are not “top-of-mind” when people are making charitable donations or volunteering—until you get to know us.

We started with a tiny volunteer crew—maybe two or three people on a great day.  You know the old adage, “busier than a one-armed wallpaper hanger?”  I gathered experience in everything from writing press releases, to volunteer coordination, to publishing a newsletter, and pretty much every skill in between.

MWDTSA: What was MWDTSA’s first project or event? How did you feel when you were launching that first event?

KEN: Top Dogs Pet Boutique, a pet store in Kennesaw, Georgia, hosted an open house for MWDTSA and donated a percentage of the day’s proceeds to our organization. That gave us a spring board and felt like a stamp of legitimacy.

DIXIE:  We received the final IRS letter confirming our nonprofit status shortly before a 2007 Fort Benning event that I was helping coordinate. Two hundred people attended that program, where we enjoyed a stunning guest speaker from the Pentagon. I was thrilled that we had enough money to buy a gorgeous standing floral tribute for the event.

MWDTSA: Think back over the entire history of your efforts. What MWDTSA events particularly moved you?

KEN: Dixie had a friend who taught elementary school students. Her class colored pictures and gave those out at a reunion of the 62nd Combat Tracker platoon. It really inspired me to see people caring about what had happened in the past.

MWDTSA was also able to raise money for new pedestals at the War Dog Memorial in Fort Benning. A number of veterans and volunteers attended the dedication of these pedestals, and this sticks with me as a highlight.

Additionally, for several years, there was an annual event where selected dog teams from Georgia installations visited the state capitol. The governor signed a proclamation for Military Working Dog Appreciation Day. We had the proclamation framed, presented it to the various installations, and had a cookout and dog demonstration.

“It’s been great to see the enthusiasm and bearing of today’s soldiers, Navy folks, airmen, and Marines.” —Ken Besecker

DIXIE: For me, there are a multitude of moments that stand out. I’ve been overcome by emotion on many occasions as I think about where I’ve come from and what this organization has gifted me.

One day, very early on, I was trying to send out a press release. It was my very first news release, and I had little idea of what I was doing. I wanted to get it to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and wasn’t quite sure how to go about contacting them.

The same day I wrote this press release, our Vice President, Ann Wilkerson, called to say she had just run into the wife of the military affairs writer for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution while visiting a new hair dresser. The chances of her running into the exact connection that I needed out of 4.67 million folks in Greater Atlanta were pretty slim. The press release and that connection were a real success for the MWD program at Fort Benning.

“Even today, when I think back on it, I sometimes have to pull my car over, as it is still very emotional to me.” —Dixie Whitman

Last year, I attended a memorial for a Marine dog we had supported on his deployment in Afghanistan. At that event, all three of this dog’s handlers were in attendance and shared personal stories with me of their time working with him. I felt beyond honored to have been included in the sharing of such precious and personal memories. This experience culminated in one of my favorite Kennel Talk articles ever.  If you haven’t read it, check out the cover of the August 2015 issue.

All of the handlers mean a lot to me. Some of them become really close friends, and I love that they ask me to support their friends as well. I am humbled at the quality and caliber of men and women who work with these dogs, day in and day out, to keep us all safe. Knowing that I’ve made a difference in the lives of these extraordinary heroes who have been in harm’s way is beyond special. I am honored to call so many of them friends.

This photo shows MA2 Devon Johnson and his military working dog, MWD Kalo, posing in front of a U.S. flag. This sailor and his dog save lives.

Recently, an email appeared in MWDTSA’s inbox entitled, “This Sailor and His Dog Save Lives.” It turned out to be an article by longtime MWDTSA donor Duke Cannon about a care package recipient! With Duke Cannon’s permission, we are reprinting the full interview below. We are grateful for their unwavering support of MWDTSA’s mission to support both ends of the leash. Please check out their amazing products!

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If you’re familiar with Duke Cannon, you know we have a special place in our hearts for those who serve our country. And we have an even bigger place in our hearts for dogs. So imagine how we feel about dogs who serve our country. (If we used emojis, it would be the face with hearts for eyes.)
 
This month, our Good Folks Project pays tribute to two heroes with a total of six legs: Sailer MA2 Devon Johnson and his military working dog, MWD Kalo. The duo travels worldwide to sniff out threats in order to keep our bases and embassies safe. In their downtime, they boost soldier morale with a heavy dose of tail wags. We are grateful for the hard work Devon and Kalo dedicate to their country, and we’re honored to share their story.

A NO-BS INTERVIEW WITH DEVON JOHNSON

 

 

 

How did you get involved with Military Dog Handling?

When I was first joining the Navy, I got taken by my recruiter to Naval Air Station Whidbey Island to see what my future job as a Master-At-Arms would be. It was a lot of law enforcement and gate duty until I met the handlers and fell in love. I did everything I could to get selected for it in our training school, but with no luck. So, my next choice was to volunteer at the Kennels in Bahrain. I would come in on my off time as Kennel Support helping the real handlers do their job and learning from a great group of people. From there I ended up getting a letter of recommendation from the Kennel Master, and leaving Bahrain with Military Working Dog Handler orders to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

What does a normal day look like for Kalo and you?

A normal work day for us always starts out with giving him breakfast, then grooming him to make sure he’s ready for the day. After that we start our day with obedience work in explosive detection training and end our day in some kind of patrol A.K.A. “bite work”. We can and do get calls throughout the day for vehicle searches or searches of unattended bags, as we are the base’s narcotics and explosive experts.

How does Kalo help fellow soldiers, even on the toughest days?

The biggest benefit I saw was during our time in Kuwait with the National Guard. For most of the soldiers, it was their first time away from home, let alone time in the Middle East. So we allowed them to come in, get in the bite suits, pet the dogs, and show them what we do daily. It was an amazing experience to see their faces brighten up when they see dogs, especially since most people think they’re overly aggressive – but they’re just big ol’ teddy bears.

They say a dog is a man’s best friend – is this true for you and Kalo?

Oh yes it is! I love that dog as if he were my son and he made days when it was hard for me 100x better. You spend everyday with him, talk to him, workout with him, and even eat with him so you build this bond that you will never build with anyone else. We have our days when we fight – like when I just got to one of the borders for a mission and he decided he wanted to take all my clean clothes out of my bag to lay in instead of lay on his or my bed, so I didn’t have any clean clothes for a week.

Which Duke Cannon products are essential for your daily hygiene on base? Which is Kalo’s favorite scent?

The biggest must have is the Cold Shower Cooling Field Towels. I love these things to death, especially traveling between countries or when you are on duty/somewhere it’s hard to get a shower. You guys supply them to MWDTSA and we get them in care packages which help out so much. I’ll have to say Kalo’s favorite scent besides explosives is Naval Supremacy because we are U.S Navy Sailors for life. 


The Duke Cannon Good Folks Project aims to highlight hard working men and women and pups making a positive impact on their community and country.