War dog handlers left behind by adoption process
By DIANNA CAHN | STARS AND STRIPES Published: March 12, 2018
WASHINGTON — Staff Sgt. Shawn Martinez stepped off the airplane onto the Kansas tarmac, hunching his shoulders against the gloom of a cold, gray winter’s day and the starkness of coming home. He gave his buddy, Bono, a tactical explosive detection dog, a playful wrestle.
He’d barely taken a few steps when Army contractors approached him to take the dog. After all, Bono was the property of the U.S. Army.
It was wrenching. Martinez and Bono had traversed hell together in Afghanistan in 2012. They’d lost a fellow battle buddy — watching as his life drained away under flying bullets — and bore witness to each other’s pain. Bono had developed shakes and nightmares; he would urinate on himself in moments of stress. Martinez had his own anxiety after three deployments that included a Purple Heart after taking shrapnel in his upper legs from a grenade.
Being abruptly separated as they came home in February 2013 was brutal. “They just didn’t care,” said Martinez. “They threw him in a kennel, and that was that.”
It took Martinez months of pounding the phones before he found Bono at a kennel run by Army subcontractor K2 Solutions in North Carolina and ultimately adopted him. When he went to collect Bono, the dog was skinny and agitated, Martinez said. He had “hot spots” where he would chew into his own flesh in moments of distress — something he continues to do today when he is confined in small spaces.
It seemed to Martinez that this alpha dog that had been trained to run through battlefields and sniff out bombs had been all but imprisoned in kennel cages, rarely getting to stretch his legs.
“He didn’t get walked a lot,” Martinez said. “He didn’t get shown a lot of attention.”
Bono was one of 232 military war dogs who served honorably in the Army’s four-year tactical explosive device detection program, or TEDD, and according to a just-released Defense Department inspector general report, he was one of the lucky ones. Struggling with anxiety, Bono left the TEDD program while it was still operational and was able to land in the care of one of his handlers. Most of the dogs and handlers never found each other again.
The report found that the Army had no plans in place on how to dispose of the dogs, so after the program closed abruptly in early 2014, the Army had just weeks to adopt out or reassign 150 remaining dogs. The Army’s office of the Provost Marshal General did not extend the contract care for the dogs, so it was forced to skip steps and quickly dispose of them, the report said.
Because of that, dogs were adopted out without giving their handlers first option, and many were given away without the required vetting of the dog or its new owner to ensure they were suitable, the report found. The IG found cases where a dog that was trained to bite or was aggressive was given to a family with small children. Many of the dogs weren’t neutered or tracked properly.
Army data show that of 232 dogs, 40 were adopted by handlers, 47 were adopted out to civilians, 70 went to other Army units, at least nine died and the rest went to federal or law enforcement agencies. Three were identified on a spreadsheet but not included in the Army’s final tally, so their fates were not clear, the report found.
The IG made recommendations for the Army to put safeguards in place for future programs, since the TEDD program shut down long ago, but it did not hold any individuals accountable. The report also did not address the way some dogs, like Bono, languished in kennels before the program ended.
For former handlers and advocates, the report comes as no surprise. But they say it didn’t delve deep enough or try to right past wrongs.
“We hoped there would be more resolution for the handlers,” said Betsy Hampton, who has been running the Facebook page and website Justice for TEDD Handlers since 2015, the year after the program shut down. “I was surprised they admitted fault,” she said. “But mostly, I was upset that they are not rectifying wrongdoing.”
Justice for TEDD Handlers
During the “surge” in Afghanistan in 2010, U.S. forces and their allies encountered a spike in buried enemy bombs. The Army initiated the TEDD program as a way to help troops detect and remove the explosives before they did harm.
The program was considered a success, lasting from 2011 to 2014. But it was stood up quickly, procuring and training dogs through a contractor rather than the established Air Force training program used for most of the military’s war dogs.
Soldiers from brigade combat teams volunteered to be TEDD handlers and, after going through a few months of training, would deploy with the dogs. Once they came home, the dogs would go back into the system to be picked up by another handler for deployment.
Handlers were told they would be given first right to adopt the dogs when the time came, according to the report. But that promise mostly fell through the cracks. When the TEDD program was shutting down in late 2013 and early 2014, the subcontractor that trained and kenneled the dogs — the second over the course of four years — held two adoption events. Many handlers weren’t notified and, as the report indicated, many of the dogs and their prospective adopters were not properly vetted.
“Essentially, anyone with a pulse was given a dog,” Hampton wrote in a description on the Justice for TEDD Handlers Facebook page.
Hampton and a small group of people started the social media campaign to reunite TEDDs with their handlers in December 2015. Her involvement with the TEDDs began after the shelter where she adopted her own dog posted a notice about a TEDD handler who was looking for his dog, Howard.
She joined thousands of supporters on social media to help him locate Howard and ultimately win a custody fight to get him back.
She and a few others soon discovered that Howard’s case wasn’t isolated. He was one of six dogs adopted by a small town in North Carolina on the premise that the dogs would be used by law enforcement. But instead, they had been adopted by individual police officers, Hampton said.
Since then, they’ve connected with more than 100 TEDD handlers who have been unable to find or reconnect with their dogs. Hampton said some of the handlers had tracked down their dogs within weeks of the adoptions, but many families were not willing to give the dogs up.
“The people running this (adoption event) did not know what they were doing,” Hampton said in an interview. “I was told whoever showed up got a dog.”
Hampton and her group found some dogs went to friends of contractors in the program or friends of Army officers, she said. Others went to a group that said they were planning to retrain them as service dogs for veterans. Instead, the dogs were left at a kennel while the group tried to sell them to the Panamanian government, Hampton said.
Some people acted like the dogs were trophies, she said.
“People were posting stuff on Facebook. They were proud of the dogs they found,” Hampton said. “We have so many files of screenshots of people bragging about getting these dogs. It’s disgusting.”
One of Hampton’s key complaints is when adoptive families, fearing they will lose their dog, won’t share information with the handlers. It’s heartbreaking for them, she said.
Others have done right by handlers — seeking to reunite them with the dog. When Kim Scarborough adopted her dog, Ben, during one of the Army’s adoption days at K2 Solutions in 2014, she set out right away to locate Ben’s handler.
Scarborough found Hampton online, and two years later, Hampton connected her to Julio Munoz, Ben’s handler, now living in New York City. Scarborough, who lives in Kinston, N.C., said she and Munoz corresponded for a while through Facebook until they finally met a few months later when she visited her mother in Pennsylvania.
They met at a park in spring 2016. Munoz came with his wife, Sully, and their two children. Scarborough came with Ben. She watched the emotional reunion of dog and handler, and Scarborough said she knew, no matter how painful, that she had to give Ben back to his rightful owner.
Munoz wondered whether Ben might be better off with Scarborough and her husband, Paul, on the farm, she said. But Scarborough was adamant. “I told him he needed to take the dog,” she said.
The Munoz family took Ben, and they all stayed in touch. After several months, Scarborough missed Ben and Munoz realized the animal would benefit from being able to run around, so they agreed to share custody. Ben would become a snowbird dog. He would be in New York in the summers and head down to the farm for the winters.
In late 2016, though, when Munoz deployed again, he asked Scarborough if she could take Ben on the farm full time.
“Even though we went through a lot of stuff, I still wanted Ben to have the better life,” Munoz said. “I wanted him to go back to the original family that adopted him. He already fell in love with them, and I didn’t want to break that apart.”
Now the dog lives with the Scarboroughs, and the Munozes stop in for visits. The two families have become friends, Scarborough said.
“We have a unique relationship, one for which I am especially proud,” she said.
Scarborough said Ben is thriving. When she first took him home, the 45-pound dog was 10 pounds underweight and extremely stressed. He was humping everything in sight, she said with embarrassment. But after just a few days of open farmland and a little discipline — they would put him in a room when he would act out — Ben stopped that behavior and hasn’t exhibited it since, she said.
“At the adoption place, it was obvious things were not handled properly,” she said. The woman running the adoption was clearly stressed. “It was chaotic.”
One thing was clear, Ben was a dog used to being a leader. To this day, every time she walks outside to pick up the newspaper, Ben startles her when he crouches and jumps up and grabs the paper. It’s like a game.
“After all these years, you’d think we’d be used to it,” she said, laughing.
“He is the sweetest, kindest, gentlest dog,” she said. “We think we hit the jackpot with him — and with Julio and Sully and their children. I really think it doesn’t get better than that.”
In May 2015, Andrew Spaulding put a post on Facebook with pictures of Bono, the bomb detection dog he handled during his deployment to Afghanistan five years earlier.
“I was supposed to have first choice when it came to adopting him, and come to find out, his last handler was able to adopt him instead,” wrote Spaulding, who served six years in the Army and now lives in Bartow, Fla. He wanted to locate Bono and find out how he was doing.
Bono and Spaulding had deployed to southern Afghanistan’s Kandahar province in 2010. It was the Taliban heartland, and improvised explosive devices were everywhere. For 10 months, the dog and his handler were inseparable — going on patrols, working checkpoints or hanging back at the base.
“He slept with me, ate with me,” Spaulding said. “He went everywhere with me.”
Bono found caches of bomb-making equipment and weapons. He sniffed out buried bombs. He even detected the scent of explosives on an empty trailer bed that was being pulled behind a motorcycle. A swipe proved him right — the motorcycle had been carrying explosives.
When they landed back home in 2011, the contractor that trained and housed the dogs — at that point Vohne Liche, in Indiana — was waiting on the tarmac to take Bono back.
It wasn’t until 2015, not long after the TEDD program shut down, that Spaulding set out to look for Bono. A colleague from the program informed him Bono had been adopted.
In May, he put up the Facebook post.
Within days, the post had been shared more than 100,000 times, Spaulding said, and it ultimately led to Bono’s second handler, Martinez, who deployed with Bono in 2012 and 2013.
Spaulding contacted Martinez and learned what those two had been through together.
Martinez and Bono were attached to a Special Forces unit. They went on countless air and overnight assaults, landing in the dark of night in remote areas and seeking out the enemy.
One night, during a particularly heavy fight, Martinez heard on the radio that Staff Sgt. Jon Schmidt had been wounded while running to help a fallen Green Beret. Bono and Martinez had drilled with Schmidt to be the backup handler should something happen to Martinez. The three were extremely close. Martinez and Bono were by Schmidt’s side when he died.
Martinez told Spaulding that Bono was living a good life with him. Though it hurt Spaulding to know he would never live with Bono again, that was all he needed to hear.
“Bono is with his last handler and living a very happy life,” Spaulding wrote in a post May 18. “He was certified last year as a service dog to help his current owner with PTSD and traumatic brain injury. He is loved by him very much and that is all I care to see.”
Spaulding said he was told from day one of the TEDD program that as Bono’s first handler, he would have first adoption rights. But no one ever contacted him. “I guess it was just a bunch of empty promises,” he said.
Not a day goes by that he doesn’t think of his dog. But he knows Bono is in good hands and he does not want to destroy what Martinez has with the dog.
He hopes that one day he will get to see him again.