The last days of an Airman's best friend

  • Published
  • By Kiley Swopes
  • Minot Air Force Base Public Affairs
Two months ago, I spent a lot of time with the Military Working Dogs at Minot Air Force Base, N.D.; learning about their mission, getting to know them and even allowing myself to overcome one of my greatest fears of being attacked by a dog during their training.

I had established a connection, not only with the handlers of the kennel, but with the dogs as well. Talking to the handlers allowed me to hear the stories each dog seemed to have. But one dog's story would soon be coming to an end. That dog's name was Jessey, and being with her during her final days would change me forever.

On Nov. 15, I went to the kennels to cover a "feel good" story about the 5th Contracting Squadron's efforts to collect and donate dog treats to the MWDs. When I arrived I noticed one dog roaming around the office. This seemed odd, so I asked about her story.

The dog was seven-year-old Jessey. To my dismay I learned Jessey had been diagnosed with bone marrow cancer in June and she had gone blind in her right eye, making her no longer fit for duty.

As I continued to listen to Tech. Sgt. Randy Akin, 5th Security Forces Squadron kennel master, answer questions from Airmen from the 5th CONS, my heart sank as I learned that Jessey was eventually going to be put to sleep.

When the group split off for a tour, my questions continued. I almost felt sick when I learned Jessey was actually going to be put down in four days. Four days!

At that moment I forgot about why I was there and focused all of my attention on Jessey. Tech Sgt. Aaron Allmon, our public affairs photographer NCO in charge, and I spent all afternoon at the kennels. As I watched everyone interact with Jessey, it was easy to see the amount of joy she brought to them. But their smiles could not hide the feeling of dread they had, knowing these were her last days. Their faces told the story. The final decision to ease her suffering had not come easy.

While each handler had formed their own special bond with Jessey, she was actually assigned to Staff Sgt. Eric Rod, 5th SFS MWD handler. The bond they had was obvious, for as soon as Rod walked into the room, she immediately perked up. Rod arrived with lunch for his K9 partner. Two cheese burgers were on the menu. One for himself and one for his special friend, Jessey. Together the two ate their lunch as buddies, even sharing an order of fries.

Soon after our visit, the MWD crew called to let us know they were going to hold a "last supper" for Jessey on Monday night. The handlers and their families all gathered together for a barbecue in her honor. I watched Jessey go from person to person, almost as if she was saying good bye to everyone in her own way. It was a humbling and gut-wrenching experience.

Jessey received a gourmet meal that night--full of countless hotdogs and hamburgers. She was the only one to receive a steak and although she appeared to be full, she still finished it. Together, the unit gave Jessey a toast and then they all suited up to be "attacked" by her one final time. After all, chomping on a potential bad guy was one of her favorite activities.

That night, Rod, his wife Tiffany and daughter Erica, spent the night at the kennel with Jessey. They did their best to make her as comfortable as possible. One can only imagine the sorrow going through Rod's mind as he tried to sleep that night, knowing his friend and partner would soon sleep forever.

As I drove to work on Tuesday, I replayed the memories I had established with Jessey in such a short amount of time. I met Allmon at our office and as we drove to the kennels, neither of us said a word. As we got closer to the kennels, my stomach began to turn and a lump formed in my throat. I felt like I was about to cry just thinking about what was about to happen. I wondered if Jessey would understand.

When we arrived to the kennels, Allmon and I agreed out of respect for Jessey and Rod's bond, we would capture only one last photo of their final moment together and leave.

As we waited, Jessey continued to play while everyone in the room exchanged light-hearted stories about her and what a great dog she was. However, when Akin appeared, telling everyone to say their final goodbyes, the room turned deadly silent. No one moved. Everyone sat there looking at Jessey.

Through tear-filled eyes, hugs and goodbyes swarmed Jessey as the Airmen all paid their final respects. I hid behind a wall, using a TV to block the flood of emotions that overcame the room.

I felt like I was in a haze as the time continued to pass by. While the Airmen set up the veterinarian's supply table, I refused to look; keeping a close eye on Jessey's every move. I knew the time was near, but I prayed for all of us to have a little more.

Rod led Jessey down a hall which led to the veterinarian's room. As I followed down the hall, I tried to switch into "work mode". However, the lump in my throat returned as I looked up and saw tears streaming from the eyes of U.S. Army Capt. Morgan Mander, Minot AFB veterinarian, as she watched Rod play with Jessey one last time while making their way to the room.

Once inside the room, Rod steeled himself as he put aside his emotions and assisted Mander by prepping and calming Jessey. After all the times Jessey watched her friend's back, it was now Rod's turn to try to reassure her.

The time came when everyone stepped out, leaving Allmon and I with Jessey and Rod. As I stood there, watching Rod holding Jessey on the table, I caught a glimpse of tears coming down his wife's face in the background. I knew at that moment we were capturing a bond no words could really explain.

With that thought in mind, Allmon shot his final photo and gave me the nod to grab the equipment. We both whispered our goodbyes to Jessey and closed the door as we left the room.

As tears streamed down my face, Allmon looked down at me and said, "Man, that was hard." I looked up only to see that Jessey touched him just as much as she did me as he began to cry too.

-- Jessey, your selfless service and friendship will be forever missed. You will always be remembered. --