I can’t help it. I still miss Josh. I loved that man like no other. Josh was more than my master; he was my best friend.
I must have flown more than a hundred missions with him. I remember the first time he put me on a Chinook. I was scared on the inside. I was trembling. Even though my training taught me not to fear the chook, chook, chook, of the blades, I still felt fear. What would happen next? Did Josh ever feel this inside?
Outside I am a pure eighty pounds of tan and beige hard fighting American glory. With my titanium teeth and wicked sense of smell I can actually differentiate smells between a battery or the chemicals used as a charge in an IED. Sometimes it’s more though. Intuitively, I just know. Josh is in trouble. It’s what I don’t smell sometimes that I just know is lurking around the corner, behind a door or a wall. That’s when I want to bark. But I can’t. It would get us both killed. So I look at him and press against his thigh ever so slightly, in case it’s the last second on earth we ever spend together. And then he knows. I know the sound by heart what happens next. Shelling. Gunfire. A spray of sound. People fall. Blood splatters. We made it. We’re safe again. This time.
We completed mission after mission together. I was tied to him by leash, but though he doesn’t even know it, it wasn’t really necessary. See, he commanded my heart. “Max, over here!” he’d order. Josh and I fed off each other when it came to courage. I’d set out before him, nose to the dusty barren ground, looking for those damnable PIES (power supply, initiator, explosive, switch) sometimes made with the cheapest of materials, all meant to take us down. We’d alternate saving each other like the rhythms of the ocean we once visited when he took me home to the States–a place the he and the soldiers always reminisced about. Me, sniffing out IEDS, putting a paw in front of his foot, being careful not to bark, in case even a sound wave would set off the bomb, Josh pulling down his M16 and eliminating our common enemy.
Why were we here? How did I get here? I don’t remember my mother. I don’t know if I had brothers or sisters. All I ever remember is Josh. At night with his ruck sack packed, ready for the next day and parked by his cot, I remember sleeping just a breath away from his canvas cot, his hand draped over and on my head. We both would fall asleep exhausted like this night after night. But still, my eyes may have been closed, but my brain didn’t sleep until I heard the quiet rumble of snore that tumbled out of Josh’s throat when he was finally deep in his gift of rest.
That’s when I would dream. They say dogs only see in black and white, but in my dreams, oh man, was it living color. I still remember when we went to the ocean together in the States. He threw tennis balls into the water and I brought them back to him about a million times. Good dog! He’d say. He was freer then. We both were. So much more than here.
A beautiful woman he called Claire was by his side on a blanket. Oh, how I loved Claire and she loved me. She would kiss my neck, and always had cold hot dogs wrapped in foil in a picnic basket for everyone, but she had a dedicated bag of them just for me.
Claire and Josh had three of the cutest kids I ever saw. I’d lay down my life for those precious babies. They’d roll all over me and I’d run and halt and fetch and chase and jump and cuddle with them. That was the best love I’d ever known. It’s all I think about when my eyes grow heavy at night. I always thought we’d go back there together.
When were at this magical place known only as home, I rested like I’d never known. I saw fire contained in a fire place, not being hurled back and forth between people. I didn’t have to keep a bug in my ear to receive orders the enemy couldn’t hear from Master Josh. And best of all, I didn’t have to wear that damnable pack on my midsection that kept my insides alive if the enemy fired at us. And Josh wore something I never saw before too: White t-shirts , plaid shorts, and flip flops! No boots on this beach! And the smells? Pure heaven. Salt and surf. Hot dogs. The smell of Claire. I saw him kiss her once and then he saw me watching. He stopped. To pet me! Can you believe that? Here was the most beautiful woman we’d both ever seen and loved, but he picked me!
I spent three years by Josh’s side. That’s a fourth of my entire life. Sometimes I saw him cry. It was when we went to those things called memorials where they hang a helmet on a rifle. I figured it out over time. It meant that friend wouldn’t be petting me anymore at dinner. He wouldn’t be covering Josh’s and my back in a firefight. One by one, sometimes our friends would simply vanish.
And then it happened. I wish I knew what the other soldiers were saying. I had just woken up. Why was my stomach bandaged? Why were their small patches of fur on my face missing? Why do I still smell something burning?
My blood felt cold. Where’s Josh? It was my only thought. So many hands patting me. Their faces were all crying. Why? Where’s Josh?!?!
But life’s not fair I learned. I went through a series of men over the next few weeks. I didn’t go out in any more battles. I heard words like “retirement” and “wouldn’t respond as well to another handler” and “it’s time.” And finally the word of my dreams—home.
It wasn’t long after that. I was on a C-130 Hercules headed back to the States. I sat bravely with all the other cargo. Men in gear, ruck sacks, helmets, guns, water bottles, aviator glasses. They were strong. Brave. Like me.
That’s when I knew. I smelled him first. There was a long box. A box draped with a flag of red and white stripes and white stars embedded in dark blue. Josh and I used to sit under the stars at night. He’d say, “Max, when we get home, we’re going to have the best life ever! You have no idea!”
Since the first time I first accompanied him in that Chinook, I felt true fear. I didn’t know what would happen next. I put my head on my paws and whimpered. Why don’t dogs have tears? At this moment I just really needed to cry.
So many hours went by. And then I saw her. Claire! Beautiful, kind, and tiny Claire. She was smaller now than I remembered her. She was wearing black and hard a firm grasp on Josh Jr. He was a mess. All the kids were; they were crying so hard. But she smiled when she saw me. She stooped down. My intuition started acting up again. It felt like I do when I had a flea I couldn’t eliminate simply by scratching. Though I never had the gift of predicting the future entirely, I sensed together we were going to mend our broken hearts together. I bolted towards her like my life depended on it. Because it did.
I live with the Owens family now. Josh Jr., Caitlyn and Madeline are my handlers. My life is good. But we all have a hole in our heart and not from a bullet hole. Sometimes when I hear the familiar chook, chook, chook in the sky when a Chinook or a Black Hawk or an Apache hovers overhead, I bark uncontrollably. I can’t help it. I just want to see Josh again. I hope and pray and bark that this is the chopper that’s finally going to bring him back to me, this flying metal savior who will finally bring my Master home.