By Heather Clark, Courier staff December 23, 2013
FORT CAMPBELL, Ky. -- Sergeant Pamela Collen, 163rd Military Police Detachment, 716th MP Battalion, 101st Sustainment Brigade, stands in the grassy field behind Fort Campbell's MP Headquarters. In spite of the frigid temperature, she wears a broad smile on her face. It isn't long before the source of her grin comes rocketing toward her at a dizzying speed, carrying with it the ultimate prize - a squeaky tennis ball.
"Good girl, Astra," says Collen, giving her 8-year-old Belgian Malinois a well-deserved scratch behind the ears.
Collen and Astra don't have a typical dog/owner relationship. Though the typical hallmarks of loyalty, love and affection are all there, theirs was a relationship built through professional training, strengthened through two deployments and cemented when Collen gave Astra a "forever home" when she retired from service as a military working dog.
A dream realized
From dogs to horses, Collen was always fond of animals. When she enlisted in the Army, she carried that fondness with her.
"During basic, I thought it would be awesome to be a dog handler," she said. "But it's such a small program and getting into it is so hard. They told us that out of our class, we might see one or two that will end up K9."
Collen was a private first class at Fort Campbell in 2007 when volunteers were sought to be a part of the Specialized Search Dog program.
"I was the first person from our battalion with my name on the list, so I was one of the first two to go," said Collen.
Once selected for the program, she was sent to San Antonio to begin a five-month training program at Lackland Air Force Base - home of the Department of Defense Military Working Dog Program.
Love at first sight?
A crucial part of the training program is the proper pairing of dog and handler to yield the best working relationship. Throughout her training, Collen was paired with a variety of dogs to no avail. Finally, she met Astra.
"At one point they told me that if I didn't graduate with Astra, I wasn't graduating," she said.
Collen's aspirations, however, seemed to be of little interest to Astra.
"Astra hated me," said Collen. "She wanted nothing to do with me. She'd had a male handler for the first couple months of school and absolutely loved him."
Still, the pair muddled through - and when her training was complete, Collen went back home with Astra in tow.
"We had a love/hate relationship for about six months," recalled Collen. "And by 'love/hate' I mean she loved to hate me. But then something cracked, and ever since then she's been part of the Family."
Partners on a mission
Collen and Astra were first deployed together to Iraq in 2007, where Astra was employed to search for explosives. Conducting searches beyond the wire during her very first deployment was, Collen admits, a frightening experience. But she and Astra had a job to do - and Astra did her job well. She proved she had what it took to be a special bomb search dog on their first mission near Forward Operating Base Warhorse.
"We were with an awesome group who had some really good intel," said Collen. "Sure enough, we went into a house and about 10 feet from the back wall there was a pretty big [weapons] cache."
It would not be the last time Astra successfully employed her expertise to save lives.
Understandably, she developed a bit of a cult following.
"Astra had her own little fan club," said Collen. "Everybody loved this dog."
Making it through a deployment brought Collen and Astra closer together, and they were an inseparable team by the time they went to Iraq a second time to shut down Camps Victory and Liberty.
"She slept with me almost every night," said Collen.
It was during one of these nights that Collen and Astra were jarred from their sleep by a mortar attack.
"The first one hit and blew the door open," recalled Collen. "The light fixture fell, closet doors came off the hinges … I couldn't find my weapon or her leash. I didn't care. We just went running for the bunker."
Downrange, Collen and Astra experienced and survived the situations that turn many Soldiers into battle buddies and create bonds between Veterans that defy comprehension outside the circle.
It was that bond that inspired Collen to re-enlist in 2009 - for the sole purpose of remaining with her partner and best friend.
A hero retires
Astra's service in the Army concluded in 2012, at which time she became officially available for adoption through the DoD Military Working Dog Adoption Program. As her handler, Collen had priority over other potential adopters - but a problem soon arose that she had not foreseen.
"My first sergeant loved her; his wife and kids loved her," said Collen. "He told me he wanted to adopt Astra and I said, 'First sergeant, those are fighting words.'"
All attempts to sway Collen's decision were exercises in futility - there was no way she was going to part ways with the friend who had shared so much with her over the past five years.
"That's my kid; I brought her home in 2007 and she's been with me ever since," said Collen. "She was there for my divorce. I was in Iraq when my great-grandma died and she was there for that. I've had her longer than I've had my current husband, and I've been with him for four years."
Life at home
Nowadays, life is fairly calm for Astra. It's been a good year of retirement. Her combat vest has since been traded for a stylish pink bow, and she is more apt to sniff around for treats in Collen's bag than to search for explosive devices.
As she races for the ball once again, it is clear that her age is only evident in the graying of the fur around her muzzle. She is every bit as spry and loyal as she was when she was led into a combat zone by Collen years ago.
Astra's Family has grown as well, and now includes Collen's husband, Tiny the great dane, Tyson the border collie mix and Collen's two horses - Zippy and Red. Still, when thunderstorms rock Collen out of a dead sleep (a result of the mortar attack) and she is led from her crate to take a spot on the bed, Astra knows she will always hold a special place in Collen's heart.
"She is amazing," said Collen. "She still makes me smile every day."
The MWD adoption program works hard to find "forever homes" for the dogs in the program -whether they have failed to meet training standards or are being retired after years of dedicated service. It's a program that Collen says is worth looking into.
"Not every dog is Astra," said Collen, "but the kennels do their best to let people know what they're getting into with each dog. A lot of them are misunderstood."
Information about the Lackland Air Force Base MWD adoption program can be found at www.militaryworkingdogadoptions.com.