The 4th of July is a time for families to gather for backyard cookouts and fireworks, but for some military families, a four-legged loved one is missing from the celebration. It’s a feeling Sam and Jessica Wettstein know well. When the newlyweds were reunited after Sam’s second deployment as a U.S. Marine, Jessica was thrilled to have her husband back on American soil — but it seemed part of him was still back in Afghanistan.
“As soon as he got home, I knew a piece of him was missing, and it was difficult for me as his new wife to not be able to fill that void,” Jessica tells Dogster.
The hole in Sam was distinctly dog shaped. He’d spent the previous 19 months working with Belle T634, a contract working dog trained to sniff out improvised explosive devices (IEDs). The pair ended up together after Sam, fresh off his first deployment, heard about an opportunity he couldn’t pass up. He grew up with Labs on his family’s farm.
“They were trying to find Marines who had prior experience with dogs — had lived with dogs or had hunted with dogs,” Sam explains.
After expressing interest, the dog lover was selected for a dog training course with a private contractor hired by the military. Belle, a highly driven, quick footed Lab was the perfect partner for the Marine with a background in long-distance running.
They then trained together for a year in North Carolina, winning the “Top Dog Award” in their graduating class before deploying to Afghanistan. The two worked as one to protect their fellow Marines, but Sam managed to maintain a certain level of emotional distance from his canine partner.
“You get there knowing that the dog is a tool. You’re not supposed to love up on the dog, or [attach] sentimental value to the dog because that deteriorates the training,” he explains, adding that the daily routine of cleaning Belle’s kennel, feeding, and maintaining her training her was good for his morale.
“I think it made my second deployment much easier, although I had to work harder and longer,” he says. “It was a chore for a lot of days, but it was a very positively mind-numbing chore in that I didn’t have to sit there with all the free time that someone without a dog had and think about home.”
Amid all the missions and hard training, Sam and Belle occasionally had an opportunity to have a little fun. When a group of British dog handlers from a nearby camp invited the American dog teams to compete in a biathlon, Sam knew Belle would once again be the top dog.
“I laughed and said, ‘It won’t be a competition, but we’ll be there,’” Sam says, recalling how he and Belle took first place by several minutes despite a rain-soaked course.
Eventually, the desert nights grew colder, with temperatures dipping between 5 and 9 degrees F. As the snow fell, Sam and Belle’s bond grew even stronger.
“I let her sleep in the sleeping bag with me,” he says, remembering how Belle once pulled the sleeping bag up over him after he fell asleep before zipping it up.
Feeling the bond that couldn’t be ignored, Sam applied to adopt Belle while the two were still deployed. He says most handlers did this, but they all knew it was a long shot. After seven months in Afghanistan, Sam and Belle returned to American soil and Sam returned Belle to the contractor.
“I felt an immediate void,” he recalls.
According to the Wettsteins, tracking down a contract military dog is next to impossible. A dog with a valuable skill set may move from the military to another agency, like the TSA or a police force.
Sam says he made two or three phone calls each week for months, constantly seeking updates on Belle’s adoption status. He learned the dog was suffering from PTSD — she wouldn’t work with other handlers and would be retiring. If he could fly her from her kennel on the east cost to California, she would be his.
Thanks to the help of Mission K9 Rescue, Belle flew to across the country to reunite with her handler and meet the other love of his life, Jessica. Although it was challenging at first, Jessica learned how to relate to the retired military dog who was terrified of loud noises and had never even seen a couch.
In the two years since her retirement, Belle has made great progress with her PTSD and is now advocating for the reunification of contract working dogs with their handlers as the 2016 Military Pet of the Year and Dogs on Deployment Mascot and a Hero Dog Award nominee. She’s spending this fourth of July celebrating freedom with the family who fought for her.