In Iraq, they were inseparable comrades: U.S. Army Sgt. Logan Black, now of Kansas City, and his bomb-sniffing dog, Diego.
More than once, the yellow Labrador retriever saved his handler’s life.
Together, they saved countless others in a year of more than 40 missions — unearthing improvised explosive devices hidden beneath roadways around Fallujah, homing in on weapons caches buried in the desert, finding automatic weapons and grenade launchers stashed in the homes of insurgents masked as friendly civilians.
When, in January 2007, Black returned from Iraq, left the Army and was forced to leave Diego, it all but broke the soldier’s heart.
“Leaving him behind was like leaving a partner, a best friend and a son all in the same package,” said Black, now 34 and a master’s student studying acting at the University of Missouri-Kansas City. “The bond with a dog is pretty incredible. But the bond with a combat dog that has saved your life on more than one occasion, slept with you, trained with you, that is a different kind of bond.”
That is why over the last 18 months, Black — who occasionally has nightmares and suffers post-traumatic stress disorder — has been working to be reunited with the dog which, he thinks, may also have some mild PTSD. In Fallujah, Black and Diego were together when a roadside bomb blasted their Humvee. Their lives were spared because the bomb detonated under the rear of the vehicle, not where they were riding.
Unsure whether Diego might be alive or dead these many years later, Black began tweeting about him and opened a Facebook page, BringDiegoHome. He searched for Diego through military sources, such as the U.S. War Dogs Association. He also contacted the offices of Sens. Roy Blunt and Claire McCaskill of Missouri.
“Senator McCaskill got back to me in about 10 minutes after I sent them a post,” Black said. “They put me in contact with her liaison for veterans’ affairs and they immediately started digging.”
But it was Facebook that first hit the mark. In late June, an airman at the Air Force’s 37th Training Wing at Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland in Texas recognized Diego. He is part of the Department of Defense’s Military Working Dogs handlers’ course, where some 800 dogs are bred and trained for military duty. Diego, 8 years old and nearing retirement, is helping with training.
“I understand he is really one of their valued assets over there,” said base public relations chief Collen McGee. “He is vital to helping get new handlers educated on how to be good handlers.”
Black, meantime, would love to have the opportunity to be back with the dog he began training at Fort Leonard Wood when Diego was about a year old. Yellow Labradors often live 11 to 14 years. Eight is middle-aged for a dog that has worked as hard and under such dangerous circumstances as Diego.
To that end, the animal rights group PETA — People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals — this week called on its members to call or write to the secretary of the Navy to request that Diego be turned over to Black.
PETA generally is known for focusing its energy on issues of animal cruelty, but in this instance, a spokeswoman said, the issue is one of compassion and companionship.
“The dog is 8 years old. He is going gray around the muzzle. He is showing his years,” said Teresa Chagrin, PETA’s animal care and control specialist. “Obviously this relationship had a great impact on one of our soldiers and he just wants to be reunited with this friend.
“We are just asking our members to be a voice for this relationship, to make this reunion possible before the dog grows too old.”
McGee with the Air Force said the chances of that happening are good — although not just yet.
“This is a happy story in the making for Diego and Mr. Black,” she said.
Right now, she said, “Diego is serving a great purpose.”
When the military can no longer use its dogs, she said, law enforcement or other agencies, such as the Transportation Security Administration, get the first chance to acquire the dogs. But because Diego is already older, odds are slim that another agency would put him to use.
“When it is his time to be adopted, the next priority is his handlers,” McGee said. “Ninety percent of our dogs that are up for adoptions are adopted by their former handlers.”
People like Logan Black, who has already filled out an application.
Exactly when Logan and Diego would be reunited is hard to say.
“The dog has to finish his job, obviously,” McGee said. Still, she said, “we do want to make sure the dogs have time in their lives to sit on the couch.”
Black believes that dog should have the opportunity to spend his last few years with a loved one.
Leaving Diego, and turning him over to another handler, he said, “was the hardest thing I ever had to do.”
Black had been in the military from the time he was 18, first joining the Army National Guard in 1996 and then enlisting in the regular Army in 2004. It took several months, he said, for PTSD symptoms to develop after he left at age 29.
His most common symptom:
“Mostly recurring dreams,” he said. “That I was in Iraq with Diego and Diego was killed in a search. I would wake, cold sweats, shaking.”
Black said he doesn’t attend therapy, nor does he like medications. Right now he is managing his PTSD on his own as he pursues a career in acting. This summer he has small parts in “Antony and Cleopatra” and “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” being produced by the Heart of America Shakespeare Festival.
What he would like, however, is to spend more time with his best friend from the Army.
“Realistically, given his age, within a year, they will retire him,” Black said.
But, if possible, he would love to have Diego now.
“Give me a call,” he said, “and I will be on a flight to San Antonio to pick him up.”