My youngest son and I were excited as we drove to Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas in September 2019. We were heading there to meet and spend the day with retiring military veterans, some of them veterans from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“What do you think they will be like?” I asked him.
“I don’t know,” he replied. “But I’m so excited. I want them to have fun because they deserve it,” my son replied, squirming in his seat.
Once at Lackland, we sat through a few briefings and we were given the opportunity to read biographies of some of the military veterans. Some had patrolled Iraq looking for explosives, others had served in harm’s way in Afghanistan, and many others had served stateside, never having deployed.
Eventually, the veterans filed into the room and we had the opportunity to meet them, one on one. There was one, in particular, that we wanted to meet after having read his bio and we made our way over to introduce ourselves. As we neared, he made eye contact with us and he leapt at my son. The veteran hit my son with what we have come to affectionately label as a “love shove,” and then his tongue started darting in and out of the muzzle around his snout as he tried to lick my son’s hands, his tail wagging energetically. I told my son to take a knee and almost on queue the furry veteran laid down on his back and opened himself up for a belly rub which my son was all too willing to give him.
“I think we found a winner,” I told the handler who smiled as my son rubbed the dog’s belly. “Everyone loves Max,” the handler told us. “He’s a really good boy.” Later that day we would begin our journey to adopt Staff Sgt. Max, a military working dog (MWD), brand number X483, who was being medically retired from the U.S. military because of severe structural defects in his lower spine and pelvis. He was one of hundreds of military dogs for adoption in 2019.
An adoption like this when I was an MWD handler in the 1980s would have never been possible. When MWDs could no longer do the job, they were euthanized, much to the dismay of their handlers. But in 2000, President Bill Clinton signed H.R. 5314 into law requiring the immediate termination of the Defense Department’s practice of euthanizing MWDs at the end of their working life. The services would be mandated to facilitate the adoption of retired MWDs.
All six of my canine partners were killed by the U.S. military once they became excess equipment. But those dogs, like other non-commissioned officers in my life, helped me grow up. Brute, my first dog, taught me that no matter how things might seem, I needed to trust him. All I had to do was look between his ears like a rifle sight and I would know where the threat was even though I couldn’t see it. He could smell it.
Another dog, Dug, helped me prevent the escape of a man armed with an Uzi who held hostages for hours at our base hospital. Every time the suspect came to the doorway, Dug quietly growled sending a rumbling, angry vibration up the leash almost like a smartphone set on vibrate. Then there was Casey who was overprotective. During a disturbance call, I let down my guard around an intoxicated individual and she jumped at a guy who had armed himself with a pair of scissors. She had my back.
Roy, the last dog I ever worked, who would look at his butt every time he farted, filling the truck with a noxious odor that I swear could peel paint. It made me laugh every single time he did it. He was always so surprised when it happened.
These were the veterans I served with and I spent more time with them than with humans. We endured long, lonely hours together, frigid nights, sweltering days, hard work and isolation tethered only to the rest of our unit by a radio signal. We walked posts in places nobody back home even knew existed; Hill 180, Morbach, the flight line cemetery. It was us against the world.
They were great friends with no expectations. They gave you everything and wanted nothing in return. I loved them and I would sneak them unauthorized cans of food, some soup bones courtesy of the commissary butchers or C-rations if they gave me the sad puppy eyes. I would also give them lasagna, currywurst, bulgogi, and whatever else I might have as leftovers. On my days off, I would stop by and play fetch with them, letting them run around off leash.
We adopted Max in October 2019 after about a monthlong process. He had served about four and a half years in the U.S. military. To honor his service, I had a U.S. flag flown over the U.S Capitol on the day he retired. Max served with Transportation Security Administration for a bit, keeping our skies safe by detecting bombs and weapons, and then he came back to the 341st Training Squadron at Lackland where all the military branches train their dogs and handlers. He helped train 17 bomb dog handlers in three years and then he began to experience physical issues and after a medical review, he was found unfit for military service. Enter the Alvarez tribe.
When we brought him home and took off his collar, he immediately started sniffing furniture drawers, door cracks, and in between couch pillows. He did not know what it was like to enter a building and not search for bombs. He went to work. He sniffed aggressively and he sprinted into a room, and then into a walk-in closet where I found him sitting, as best he could, perfectly still, alert, looking right at me. He had detected and found our hunting rifles and ammunition. I gave him his Kong and praised him and told him he didn’t have to do that anymore.
Everyday I’m reminded of what lies ahead, but I try to ignore it. Somedays his rear legs shake so badly it is like he is having a seizure in the rear half of his body. He goes on walks, runs and plays, but there have been times we’ve walked him too far and he’s had to rest because physically he cannot endure the walk. There have been times in the backyard where he has collapsed where he is at, unable to walk, because he overdid it, but in his mouth is a Kong he did not have to earn by finding a bomb and it is almost as if he is laying there, immobilized by the pain, but smiling because he is so blissfully happy. The paralysis is momentary, and if he rests long enough in the cool grass under the shade of a tree, his body recharges, and he gets back up again.
At his first veterinarian visit, the vet was excited to meet him and as she examined his spine and pelvis, she touched a sensitive area. Max turned his head to the doctor and looked at her hand. “Is that where it is, buddy?” she asked him. He licked her hand. “He’s so stoic,” she said as she hugged him. Military service broke him, but he’s still here and there’s a lot of life left in him.
It is my mission to make his life as comfortable as I can because I couldn’t do that for my other six partners. It’s the least I can do. Max has a fluffy bed, a backyard, four kids that play with him, and my wife who adores him and rubs him so hard that she puts him to sleep. He loves cheeseburgers, fries, beef jerky and anything off my plate. He loves our backyard, but his favorite place is on the couch where he likes to fall asleep and snore loudly. He’s also a smelly farter.
Introducing him into this new world of domesticated life hasn’t been without problems. He has had accidents in our home. He is not housebroken. For most of his life he has lived in a kennel where he defecated and urinated, naturally he brought those behaviors into our home, but we’ve helped him understand. Our other dog, Chowder, has also shown him how to be a suburban dog. He’s a work in progress, but he is a member of our family.
April 30 is National Adopt a Shelter Pet Day. Different cities have different rules in place for the COVID-19 response, so check with your local shelters to see how you can help. Many of my neighbors have opted to help the local shelter by fostering an animal, others have adopted a pet since they have the time to devote to training and housebreaking.
While the MWD adoption program is currently not accepting applications and they do not have dogs available for adoption, they will have future dog adoption events, so please consider bookmarking the adoption page and adopting an MWD in the future. How much does it cost to adopt a dog from the military? Nothing.
Remember, this is a free dog adoption program. If you have often asked yourself “How to adopt a dog?” or “Where to adopt a dog?” the MWD program might be a good option especially if you live near the military working dog adoption center in San Antonio. Every year they have hundreds of dogs up for adoption, and while they might not be rescue dogs for adoption, or service dog adoption, the military’s dog adoption is an alternative to local dog adoption.
If you are not near San Antonio, after contacting the 341st, you might be given instructions to reach out to a local military installation near you that has local dogs for adoption. Local dog adoption of an MWD might be easier than what we went through in San Antonio, but your best bet is to get some guidance from the MWD adoption program and then proceed from there.
For years before we adopted Max, I searched the Internet for “dogs for adoption near me,” or “dog adoption centers near me,” and “dog adoption events near me,” and “free dog adoption near me.”
Luckily for me, one of the places to adopt dogs near me that had dogs for adoption in my area was the MWD program. It is a great place to adopt a dog if you’re willing to do a little work and be patient with the process.
There are many furry veterans who are looking for a home and I guarantee you they will add color and flavor to your life, even if it comes in the form of smelly dog farts.