Susan Swaim at Faithful Friends Animal Sanctuary received a call from Rowan County Animal shelter recently. "I have two special American heroes here," Swaim remembers hearing. "I think you're going to want to see them."
Swaim is operation manager at the North Carolina based-rescue and mother to a U.S. Marine corporal who served in Afghanistan. She listened to the story of Sgt. Woody and Sgt. Raka, a pair of retired Army dogs, and knew she had to help. "I'll be there in five minutes," she told the shelter.
Sgt. Woody and Sgt. Raka detected bombs and explosive materials when they were overseas in Iraq. The two golden Labrador Retrievers had several tours of duty before they retired two years ago.
"There's no telling how many lives these dogs saved while they were over there, and they deserve the best in their retirement years," said Swaim. "And that's what we're going to make sure they get."
To look at the pair now, playing with each other and chewing stuffies, it's hard to see that they are combat veterans. Sometimes their training comes through, like when Swaim observed them search a car in the parking lot the day they arrived at the shelter.
From what Swaim was able to piece together of the dogs' backstory, they served in Baghdad. They likely served four or five tours and had several different handlers. One day, towards the end of their service, Woody was out on patrol and Raka was locked in his kennel, the building where the dogs were housed caught fire. Several dogs died in the fire, but Raka was saved, although now suffers post traumatic stress syndrome, which is being treated.
Shortly after the fire, both dogs were retired. A veterinary technician who cared for the dogs, paid for the dogs to be shipped home with her. Her mother took the dogs into her home but recently fell upon difficult financial hardship and had to give them up, as her daughter had been reassigned and could not take the dogs either. "It's rare for canine veterans to end up in an animal shelter," Swaim said.
Ideally, Faithful Friends would like to reunite the dogs with a soldier who was the dog's handler in Iraq. But if they can't find a handler, they will open adoptions up to the public. So far, they have had a flood of applications, with several of the top candidates having served in the U.S. military. A few have promised to even give the dogs up should any of the the dogs' original Army handlers step forward.
"They really want to provide the best they can for the dog," Swaim said of the candidates. "It's not about 'I want a Katrina dog,' or 'I want a bomb-sniffing dog.'"
Whomever ends up adopting Raka and Woody will be a fortunate guardian. The dogs have amazing personalities, are well-trained, are well-looked after and are "incredibly social," Swaim said.