Stories From Home
FOUR-LEGGED SOLDIERS REMEMBERED
Memorial Day is dedicated to service men and women who gave their lives serving our country. It is also a time to remember loved ones who have passed away. Families come together to remember loved ones with lost stories forever etched into hearts.
Stories like that of Master at Arms Petty Officer 1st Class John Douangdara from Nebraska. A member of the Naval Special Warfare team, Douangdara went into the Navy straight from high school and was stationed over in Italy right after training.
At 18, he was unsure his role in the Navy was what he really wanted to do. While in Italy, a fellow Navy Sailor began to bring Douangdara to the dog kennels. The first visit spawned Douangdara’s love for Military Working Dogs (MWDs). He went on to Lackland K-9 school near San Antonio, TX, and there he found his calling as a MWD Handler.
“He always took the most difficult dog and took them under his wings to train them,” Chan Follen, Douangdara’s sister recalls.
Toby was one of the first dogs he had a strong handler connection with after training. He was also the first dog John lost in combat. While on a mission in Iraq, Toby discovered an insurgent in a cubby. The insurgent fired at Toby. Toby dragged the insurgent all the way out of the hole before letting go. Unfortunately, Toby did not survive the injury from the gunshot wounds but will always be remembered for giving his own life in defense of the soldiers he was assigned to protect.
“These dogs put their life on the line to defend their handler. These dogs are so loyal and they don’t get the recognition. They’re not worried about themselves, they’re worried about their handlers.” Follen said.
Douangdara’s last dog was Bart, and because he was one of the most difficult dogs, Follen said that her brother was constantly out training Bart.
“I remember him telling me about times when he had to share a hotel room with Bart. And Bart would always take the bed first,” Follen said.
In 2011, Douangdara was killed along with 29 other service members when the CH-47 Chinook helicopter they were on was shot down by the Taliban in Afghanistan. Bart was with Douangdara in that helicopter and did not survive the crash.
There were many other dogs that Douangdara handled in his career, including Diesel, who eventually retired and is still living with an adopted family.
MWDs serve until their health or age prevents them from continuing their duties. Families are able to adopt them when they are retired from service.
A SISTER ADOPTS MILITARY WAR DOG
That is exactly what happened with Dicky. In August of 2013, the Belgium Malinois became a part of Douangdara’s family when Chan Follen adopted her.
Dicky and her handler were stationed in Yorktown and Dicky was ready to retire after serving 10 years for the Navy. She had to clear health exams before being discharged in Washington D.C. Once she was cleared, the handler exchanged hands with Follen in the Arlington cemetery parking lot after they had visited her brother’s grave.
Dicky was never handled by Douangdara, but the connection back to her brother is the very reason Follen worked so hard to adopt her. Dicky worked alongside Douangdara in Iraq with another handler, Gina.
“It was a long wait for her,” Follen said, “ But Dicky knew my brother so the way she was adopted and got to live with us is cool.”
When Follen brought Dicky home, the family dog, a pug named Sebastian, had a new friend and teacher.
“I had tried to get Sebastian to shake for a long time. Dicky taught Sebastian to shake. And Sebastian taught Dicky how to live like a normal dog,” Follen said, “A house isn’t foreign to them (MWDs), but they don’t know the house rules.”
Sebastian showed Dicky the rules of living in retirement! This included sleeping on the couch, eating when she wanted, getting treats and begging for food. Soon Dicky was a happy, healthy dog in her new home.
“She would play fetch all afternoon if she could,” Follen said.
In February 2013, she started slowing down a little bit. One day, Follen found Dicky with her jaw swelled up and lymph nodes hard and raised. She had surgery and they got the biopsy results right before a family vacation. Dicky had cancer in her mouth and in a matter of a few days; it spread to her nervous system.
“I was scared that I was going to come home to her passed away and that was my biggest fear,” Follen said.
Out of love and with many tears, the family decided on a peaceful dignified end for their wonderful friend and hero. 12-year old Dicky can now sleep peacefully.
“I couldn’t live with myself and keep her alive and in pain, it was a very difficult decision we had to make,” Follen said.
The decision to adopt another MWD is an easy one for Follen. There is a current MWD in service that is named after her brother, Douangdara. She hopes to adopt that dog when it is retired.
Douangdara’s legacy of dog handling lives on in his hometown of South Sioux City, Nebraska. The developing Freedom Park, includes a dog park that is named after him. In the dog park, there is a statute of Douangdara and Toby, his first dog.
On Memorial Day, we should not forget the Military Working Dogs who are soldiers. They do not volunteer for their jobs, but do them anyway without question. These four-legged soldiers are ready for any task at hand in any conditions and protect out of love and duty to the soldiers in their charge.
It is our task to remember the handlers and dogs that because of their work allowed others to come home to their families. We thank and encourage those who served to share their memories. It is in memories of soldiers like John Douangdara, Toby, Diesel and Dicky that allows them to live on in the hearts of families everywhere.
A special thank you to Chan Follen for sharing your brother with us and the price he paid for our freedom.
YOU CAN HELP REMEMBER...
If you’re interested in continuing the legacy of other fallen dogs and their handlers, Chan Follen is working on a project to engrave bricks and lay them around the newly erected statute at the dog park. You could have your memorial to a dog or its handler engraved and permanently placed around the statute. You can email her for more information.
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