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ON ASSIGNMENT: Veterans Day in WY

11.14.2015

Iraq war veteran buries his combat dog with full military honors

Strangely, I feel lucky to be a journalist when asked to cover solemn events….it gives my life perspective.

When it comes to reality checks, Veterans Day is the one that gets me every time.  This year I was asked by the Washington Post to cover a Veterans Day story, in small-town Powell, WY., that at its core was about the powerful bond we form with our dogs.

“Major Mike” was a nine-year-old Belgian Malinois, who served two tours of duty in Iraq.  And yes, Major was his rank.  He was a war hero, saving countless lives as an Army special operations bomb sniffing dog under the guidance of his war buddy, Sergeant 1st Class Matthew Bessler, a highly-decorated Army Ranger.  Bessler served in Iraq, Somalia, Haiti, and Bosnia, and was honored with three bronze stars.  But when the grind of war caught up with the pair, they came home.  PTSD was the culprit.

Until the Iraq War I had seldom heard of PTSD, but through home front war coverage, I witnessed it first hand.  It is a crushing illness that ruins lives, takes lives, and eats away at a person’s core until they are no longer the person they once were.  PTSD is ruthless.  It is the devil.

More than ever, the two needed each other as they fought for their sanity and spirit away from the battlefield.  Sgt. Bessler thought, if a dog can be taught to sniff bombs, then maybe he can also be taught to help a buddy cope with PTSD, which is exactly what happened.  Dogs never stop giving.

But in the end, the one who saved lives in a war zone, and who saved a life in Powell, WY, lost his to a passing bicyclist who holstered a pistol on his bike and used it out of fear that a long-haired, four-legged war hero might harm him as he rode by.  Major Mike was shot and killed…ironically, by a war veteran.  The fact that you can survive war, but not home, is tragic.

To honor his best friend, Sgt. Bessler decided to treat Major Mike, like all soldiers who served honorably, to a full-military funeral.  The works.  A 21-gun salute, followed by the playing of taps, and finally the presentation of a folded American flag.  It was a rare, emotional event…apparently only once before.

I was fortunate to meet two of America’s best, one in spirt and the other in the flesh.  Sgt. Bessler welcomed me like a friend and allowed me to photograph all the anguish that overcame him that day.  He wanted the world to know that ALL war heroes deserve to be honored, and through his grief, I was able to convey that special bond forged by war, admiration, and friendship.

I was lucky to spend my Veterans Day in Powell, WY.

For a better read, check out the great work by reporter Sarah Kershaw, who first told the story of the two in the Washington Post, and then wrote about the Veterans Day service.

Below are some of my images from that day…click on the first image to start the slide show.

 

 

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