PULASKI BARRACKS, Germany -- Military Working Dogs, or MWDs, play a huge role in the defense of the United States -- and when one of them is injured, the Veterinary Medical Center Europe plays a huge role in getting them back in the fight.
Recently, while on patrol with his handler in Afghanistan, MWD Alex, assigned to the 8th MWD Detachment, 91st Military Police Battalion, Fort Drum, New York, was injured in an attack by a suicide bomber. Following care in Bagram, Afghanistan, Alex was medically evacuated to VMCE for further treatment.
Like many of their human counterparts, when an MWD is injured while deployed, they are often medically evacuated to Germany. Service members are transported to Landstuhl Regional Medical Center for care, and MWDs are transported to VMCE for comprehensive veterinary care.
According to Maj. Renee Krebs, VMCE deputy director and veterinary surgeon, when Alex arrived in Germany, he had a fractured left tibia, shrapnel wounds, and multiple other fractures below and above his shin bone.
On the day he arrived, Krebs performed surgery to stabilize Alex's leg, "which worked pretty well," she said. "But his other wound, particularly the one over his ankle, started to get worse and worse every day despite appropriate medical therapy and pain management."
Alex's wound over his ankle was getting so bad that it would likely require up to six months of reconstructive and orthopedic surgery. And because of bone and tissue loss, he was also at a very high risk for infection.
In addition to this, Krebs said that Alex was "not using the limb as well as he had been the first week or so after surgery --it was getting more painful. And he began to develop some behavioral problems, centered on some of the things we had to do when we were treating him."
Krebs said some of the behavioral problems included aggression and snapping when the team would move him to the table to do treatments.
"I spoke to a behaviorist about it and she thought he was having some post-traumatic stress disorder-type acute episodes," Krebs said. "So we changed the way we were managing him, but he was still getting worse, so in the interest of allowing him to move on with his life and improve his quality of life, we went with amputation."
Krebs said that had they not performed the amputation, it was likely that Alex would have still ended up losing his leg if they had gone with the option of three to six months' of wound management.
"The risk was very high. It was a very guarded prognosis to begin with that he would ever have normal return of function to the leg, and I knew if I amputated his leg he would be functional as a pet or regular dog probably within a week -- so it seemed like the best option for him."
Alex was described as relatively calm by Krebs, and during his time at the VMCE, the staff learned more about him, enabling them to cater to his needs and ensure he was comfortable.
"MWDs run the gamut from very high strung, very nervous and needing to be restrained because they have so much energy and are so anxious, to being very mellow," Krebs said. "Alex was sort of a strange combination -- he was relatively calm, but there were things that you knew if you did them he was going to get angry, like touching his tail."
At Alex's home unit, Sgt. First Class David Harrison, kennel master for the 8th MWD detachment at Fort Drum, said Alex always felt like an old soul to him.
"[Alex has] the experience of a career Soldier, and always carried himself in a way which always made trainers and handlers just believe he was focused on the mission at hand," Harrison said. "He carries the ability to simply be a fun-loving dog who values his rapport with his handler as much as he enjoys executing his duties."
Even while recovering from his injury and going through surgery, Alex was teaching those around him some important lessons.
"It's tragic what happened," said Spc. Landon DeFonde, MWD handler with the 8th MWD detachment at Fort Drum, who has been with Alex for his recovery in Germany. "But it just goes to show how selfless and resilient these animals are. For him to go through that blast and still be as strong as he is and kind and gentle towards people, it really amazes me that what they are capable of living through and surviving through. It definitely teaches me resiliency."
But these lessons don't just come when an injury happens, as the relationship between MWD and handler is one that both benefit from over the course of their pairing.
"The relationship between handlers and their partners is a relationship I've always found difficult to put into words," Harrison said. "It's a familial bond, but it almost goes deeper in some ways. The co-dependent nature of the business puts handlers in a position where they have to give more trust to their canine than most put in fellow humans. It's not always a comfortable or easy process, but once they reach the point where they independently trust each other while working in tandem, the connection the team develops is unparalleled."
DeFonde, who has been a MWD handler for three years, shares similar sentiments.
"It is truly incredible how selfless one can be and I think it shows the true side and caring side of humans -- how much compassion and care we can show another living being -- it is really special," said DeFonde. "It is really amazing how we interact and how we can combine to create such a strong and powerful team."
Alex will head back to the states at the end of August where he will continue his recovery. Due to his injury, his home station kennel will submit a medical disposition packet to allow Alex to retire and be adopted.
"I've built a bond with Alex -- not as deep as his handler's," DeFonde said. "But it is always hard to say goodbye. Dogs do come and go -- that is part of the job, but I am just really happy I was able to come over here and help him recover and then get him back to the states and get him to see his handler.
"I've always heard the saying, humans don't deserve dogs because of how kind they are, and I 100 percent agree. You could not ask for a more selfless companion."