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Army vet and military working dog to reunite five years after service in Afghanistan

More than five years of doubt ended Wednesday for U.S. Army veteran Joseph Steenbeke, who’s longed to adopt Tess — the dog who’d been his bomb-sniffing partner and emotional helper while the two were deployed in Afghanistan.

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By JOSEPH DITS | The South Bend Tribune | Published: January 24, 2019

CULVER, Ind. (Tribune News Service) — More than five years of doubt ended Wednesday for U.S. Army veteran Joseph Steenbeke, who’s longed to adopt the dog who’d been his bomb-sniffing partner and emotional helper while the two were deployed in Afghanistan.

He got a call.

Tess, a Belgian Malinois whose ID number is tattooed on Steenbeke’s arm, would be his. U.S. Rep. Jackie Walorski rang Steenbeke’s cellphone to deliver the news.

“I had to stop, catch my breath and sit down a minute,” said Steenbeke, 28, who was at his part-time job at his family’s Granger air duct cleaning business. “That dog can still make me emotional at the drop of a hat.”

He then called his wife, Stephanie, at their Culver home, and there was “excited hollering.”

PTSD lingers with Steenbeke from his nearly one year of service in Afghanistan. He’d worked with different units there, but Tess was consistently there, his best friend sniffing for bombs to keep the units safe.

"Not being with her, I feel like I am constantly going through a huge emotional rollercoaster," he’d told a reporter for a story that ran in The Tribune on May 28. "I feel like it's a part of me missing because I don't have her around."

Steenbeke met and selected Tess at K-9 training in Denver, Ind., in 2012. They haven’t seen each other since Steenbeke’s tour of Afghanistan ended, bringing them both back to the U.S. in 2013.

Steenbeke has been trying to adopt her ever since, an effort that became more earnest a year ago, eventually tapping into a “small army” of agencies and people who’ve helped to ensure that Joe and Tess reunited. He credits Walorski with “calling people I don’t have access to.”

Walorski’s spokesman, Jack Morrissey, said her office called on officials with the U.S. Air Force who run the Military Working Dog Program as well as the Connecticut National Guard, where Tess has sniffed for explosives until now — to “put the Steenbekes on their radar, make sure the proper documentation and paperwork got to the right people.” Walorski spoke with the Connecticut National Guard several times as Tess neared retirement.

The Steenbekes know that, aside from them, two out of Tess’s many handlers had shown interest in adopting her.

About 9 years old, Tess had been taken to Lackland Air Force Base in Texas for veterinary tests to see if she was safe to adopt. Walorski learned early Wednesday that Tess and Joe had both been cleared for adoption.

The Steenbekes are waiting for word at any moment on how and where they can fetch Tess. Joe and Stephanie both hope they can drive to Texas to get her, giving them all time to bond.

The years of wait and uncertainties have been hard. Stephanie said they’d learned to be hopeful but realize that it could all fall through. Even in the past week or so, as the Steenbekes learned that they were the only ones eligible to adopt Tess, Stephanie said: “We were still guarded. It’s hard to get your hopes up.”

“We haven’t heard anything for sure until today,” she said.

Life carries on for Joe, who last July became head golf coach for Ancilla College. As the effects of PTSD have continued to be an issue for him, he said he’s held the comforting thought that, in the end, “I’d be able to hold her (Tess) on leash again.”

“She’s already helped me so much,” he said, “and she hasn’t been here.”

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©2019 the South Bend Tribune (South Bend, Ind.)
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