By Senior Airman Maeson L. Elleman, 18th Wing Public Affairs
/ Published June 19, 2013
KADENA AIR BASE, Japan -- "Present, arms!" shouted the Airman from the line of flag bearers, signaling crisp, polished movements from the honor guard detail.
As the notes of the Japanese and U.S. national anthems rang through the room, service members and their families stood frozen in silent respect for the flags and for those who've dedicated their lives for the symbolic and historic colors.
It was the ceremonial beginning, June 13, which marked the end of careers for four heroes who, like many before them, have dedicated the majority of their lives to their partners and their service. Characteristic of other retirements, it ushered in a new beginning in a life of rest and relaxation, long forgotten throughout the years of deployments and self-sacrifice.
Although it maintained the distinctive procession, this observance would host an atypical subject that would further distinguish the mysterious, yet impressive occupation.
As the emcee, Tech. Sgt. Kristen McKay, 18th Security Force Squadron military working dog kennel master, spoke to the crowd about the life accomplishments of each veteran, her words painted four separate pictures of honor and commitment in an ever-changing environment in a way that made each of the retiring working dogs almost seem human.
It's for this human-like service that Staff Sgt. Codi Carter, 18th SFS military working dog trainer, said they deserve a retirement just the same as any human service member.
"In my opinion, it's important for the working dogs to have a formal retirement because it's a recognition they deserve," Carter said. "It reiterates the importance and the magnitude of the impact our four-legged comrades have on our safety on a daily basis. These dogs give their heart and soul for the protection of each and every one of us, expecting nothing but a handler's caring touch in return.
"The majority of these dogs work until their dying day, without so much as a warm dog bed to rest their head on at the end of their 'watch.' The least we can do is publicly recognize these dogs and their many accomplishments to thank them for the sacrifice and service they've given throughout their military careers. This act solidifies the gratitude we share for their loyalty and commitment to us."
According to McKay, the dogs form a partnership with their handlers many say is irreplaceable.
"Military working dogs are considered equipment," she said. "However, those dogs are our partners. We can't do our job without them, and they can't do their job without us. We go hand in hand. They're treated as partners; they're taken care of as partners. If you're downrange and an incident happens where your dog needs support or medical attention, they get nine-lined (medical evacuated) out just like a human being would."
However, the capabilities of a working dog are not to be confused with a human's limitations.
In their collective experiences, the military working dogs, Missa, Shara, Nemo and Zina, amassed a combined total of nearly 60,000 detector sweeps for either narcotics or explosives during their tenure in the Air Force.
"K-9 is important to the military because there is no machine or person or piece of equipment that could ever replicate what a military working dog does, because a military working dog has a sense of smell that is 10,000 times greater than that of any human being," McKay said. "Without that, there is no way a machine or a person or piece of equipment could go out and detect the explosives or narcotics as quickly or efficiently as a military working dog."
Though it may sound like a continuous, possibly monotonous task, McKay said no day is the same, creating more challenges for the handlers and a daily mission to complete.
"Most people look at it as a pet, but military working dogs have a mission," McKay said. "Our primary goal is to save lives or deter bad things from happening from bad people. Every day that you come into work, you have a goal; you have a plan; you have something that needs accomplished for a reason."
McKay said that with such a specific and constantly varying mission, dog handler teams around the Air Force have to stay equipped and trained beyond just the basics.
"Initially you go through the military working dog handler's course," McKay said. "After your handler's course, you'll get to your first duty assignment, and then it's all on-the-job training. It's not just what you learned in handler's course; handler's course is just the beginning or the foundation. You have to continue building and researching and asking questions.
"My biggest thing is you have to be a constant sponge," she continued. "The moment you think you know everything about K-9 or about dogs, is the day that you should probably hang up your leash, because the military working dog program is constantly changing. Every base is different; every dog is different; every program is different."
For some of the dogs, service consumed eight of their 10 years of life. Following retirement and the juicy, celebratory steak given to the K-9s, most dogs were faithfully adopted by their final handlers, a process that's only been authorized for a little more than a decade.
"I'm happy that I was able to adopt Shara," Carter said, Shara's 10th and final handler. "Even though I was only her handler for about a year, I'm excited for the chance to take her home and give her a life beyond service. It's what she deserves."