From mine maven to couch companion: A military working dog's journey to retirement
Retired Staff Sgt. Lady was only two years old when she was brought to Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, as a potential military working dog, but her willingness to learn and obedience in the field earned her access into the elite military working dog force.
"There are only about 2,500 military working dogs across the entire Department of Defense," said a Lackland AFB spokesperson. "Our dogs have to be high drive and highly motivated to make it in the program."
After initial training at Lackland AFB, Lady was sent to the Counter Explosive Hazards Center here where she would meet her one and only handler.
"The moment I looked into those big brown eyes, I knew that we would be lifelong friends," said Sgt. Roque Espinoza, who now works as a dog handler for the K9 Detachment, 5th Engineer Battalion.
Espinoza, a combat engineer, re-enlisted to become a dog handler back in 2008 and spent six months training alongside Lady to certify in mine detection techniques.
The training paid off.
Lady and Espinoza were sent to Afghanistan in 2009 and again in 2011 where they conducted countless mine detection missions during their yearlong tours.
"During our first deployment we went out to do a scan of an area marked for [Forward Operating Base] expansion," said Espinoza. "Lady identified a 60mm mortar that was buried six inches below the ground."
"I couldn't believe it, until I saw it and at that moment I couldn't have been prouder of what we had done together," he said.
But during her second deployment, the regional veterinarian identified a potentially debilitating condition in Lady's back and hips that led to her retirement in January 2013.
"You could tell right away that something just wasn't right," said Espinoza.
Espinoza said that he knew early on in their relationship that he wanted Lady to be a part of his family forever and that there was no doubt in his mind he would be taking her home after her time in the military was finished.
And that's just what he did.
"Sgt. Espinoza filled out the disposition and adoption paperwork," said Sgt. 1st Class David Gerts, K9 Co. kennel master of the 49th Mine Dog Detachment. "The papers went through the vet here on post and were sent to Lackland AFB for final review and approval."
From that point, Gerts said that Espinoza would ask him two to three times a day if Lady was finally ready to go home.
Gerts said that he made phone calls and sent emails daily for nearly two weeks before receiving word that Lady was approved for retirement.
Approximately 400 military working dogs are approved to leave service every year, according to a Lackland AFB spokesperson.
"You really couldn't ask for an easier dog than Lady," said Gerts. "And all that hard work and persistence paid off because now she's in a really great home."
In anticipation of Lady's trip home, Espinoza also pushed to have honorable discharge papers crafted from the unit and then framed commemoratively with Lady's favorite tennis ball.
As Lady's only handler and Espinoza's only dog, the two share a special bond.
"The love and friendship we share is hard to describe," said Espinoza. "She has been my friend, my companion, my protector, and occasionally the thorn in my side, but I love her."
"To me she is a lot more than just a dog, to me she is family," he said.
Lady now spends her days lounging around the house with lots of toys and lots of love thanks to the Espinoza family who say they couldn't be happier to welcome her into their home.
Espinoza is scheduled to attend Specialized Search Dog training at Lackland AFB in June and will be assigned a new military working dog at that time.
"I am excited to see what is next for me and my family here at Fort Leonard Wood or wherever the Army sends us next," said Espinoza. "There's nothing better than being able to serve my country while doing something that I love."