FORT JACKSON, S.C. -- These days, Gabe lives a life of leisure, spending most of his days snoozing on the couch. A few years ago, his time was spent working under the scorching Iraq sun, trying to find explosives, ammunition and other weapons before they could be used against him. He racked up 26 "finds" during the 170 combat patrols he took part in, the largest of which was a cache of rounds discovered on the banks of the Tigris River.
Retiring at the rank of sergeant first class, Gabe is 9 years old.
And he's a dog.
"When he's working he's very focused," said Staff Sgt. Chuck Shuck, a drill sergeant leader at the Drill Sergant School. Shuck is Gabe's former handler and now, in the animal's retirement, owner. "He's getting a little older now, so he's pretty docile. He still chases squirrels in my yard at home, but now he pretty much just lies around the house."
Despite the success he'd eventually rack up during his time in Iraq, Gabe wasn't a welcome presence when he and Shuck first arrived. Using an animal to sniff out weapons and explosives was a new concept to the Soldiers tasked to put him to work, and Shuck said Soldiers weren't excited about using an animal during already tense searches for weapons and explosives.
"On our fifth mission we started finding things," he said. "When we found a cache of 36 122-mm rounds, they couldn't get enough of us. He was the most productive dog in the Iraqi theater during that one-year period."
Not all of the finds involved direct discoveries of weapons, though. On a few occasions, the dog directed Soldiers to look a little deeper into the backgrounds of the people they were searching.
"We'd find a lot of pistols and, sometimes, find nothing in the vehicles," he said. "But we'd test the drivers and there'd be residue of explosives, C4 or TNT on their hands."
Shuck said Gabe serves as an example of what communities lose when animals fail to find homes at shelters. Originally a pound puppy from Houston, Gabe was picked up and sent to school by the Army.
Shuck was paired with Gabe and another dog in 2006, with Gabe passing his final evaluation in Numa, Az., after five months of training. A few weeks later the two found themselves on the ground in Iraq.
"Gabe left Iraq with three Army Commendation Medals and an Army Achievement Medal from the different units, and about 40 coins of excellence," Shuck said. "Me, as his handler, I only got two."
Gabe received the 2008 Heroic Military Working Dog Award Medal from the American Kennel Club, a national award that included animals from all armed forces. But Gabe and Shuck briefly parted ways when they returned to America, with the dog sent to Lackland Air Force Base, Texas, where he was paired up with another handler.
The working relationship didn't last long, though, because Gabe refused to work with his new handler.
"I got to adopt him and he's been living with me since July, 2009," Shuck said. "At home he's eating tennis balls and lying on the couch, and he's gained about 25 pounds."
While Gabe is no longer working, he's staying active in other areas, and currently has more than 11,000 followers on his Facebook page. He's visited wounded Soldiers in hospitals, and has maintained a pen pal program with students in Georgia.
"We like to educate kids on respect, and staying in school," Shuck said. "We talk to them about the Army Values in general and sent each of the kids Army dog tags. And my Soldiers in basic training wrote to them what Army Values meant to them."
"Team Gabe" is currently mobilized to help the dog win the nationwide 2012 Hero Dog Awards from the American Humane Association. He's already collected 30,000 votes, Shuck said.
The Hero Dog Contest has two stages. The first round lasts until June 30 and allows people to vote once every 24 hours. If Gabe wins his category, then he will compete against seven other dogs from other categories starting July 1.
The Hero Dog Awards were created in 2010 to celebrate the relationships between dogs and people. Hundreds of dogs from all 50 states were nominated and some 400,000 votes were cast by the American public, culminating in the selection of eight canine finalists. Panels of past celebrity judges have included Betty White, Whoopi Goldberg, Mark Hamill and Jillian Michaels.
"Last year, Gabe was the runner-up in our category," Shuck said. "We didn't have the following that we have this year."
He said Gabe is an example of cost-effective resources the Army could put to use every day.
"You can take a pound puppy and make him into a war dog, train him to go out there and do some great things," he said. "All of these dogs that are getting put to sleep in shelters, maybe some of them we could use as military dogs. Rather than going out and buying these dogs, why not look for labs, golden retrievers or German Shepherds in pounds and shelters and start using them?"
To vote for Gabe in the 2012 Hero Dog Awards, visit www.herodogawards.org.
Find Gabe on Facebook at www.facebook.com/VoteGabe2012