Not too long ago I met a story. While walking my dog I stopped to wish a neighbor well with his move. He waved thanks and kept walking toward his house, and the fellow taping up boxes looked up and beamed. I thought he was grateful for the coffee approaching in my neighbor’s hand until he exclaimed “Puppy!” Tall, lean, with a ponytail in back, this fifty-something man walked over, said hi to me, then crouched to say hello to Cappy. I call this the working hello and I know that the person greeting my dog not only likes dogs but works hard to understand and communicate with them. In this relaxed fall morning a story unfolded.
Dave got his first work dog as a young Vietnam soldier. When this pup was shot literally from underneath him, he was given another to train and work. “War dogs you don’t get too attached to. They are there to do a job. You’re eighteen, away from home, and you love them, but you don’t get too attached.” That’s how Dave became involved with civilian search and rescue teams.
In the 1990′s Dave was employed as a veterinary assistant in an Atlanta Emergency Clinic. One morning he found a young stray tied to the clinic door, with two broken legs and a ruptured spleen. The doctors for whom he worked didn’t believe in euthanizing if they felt there was a reasonable chance of saving an animal. They did their magic, and then it was Dave’s turn to do his. In caring for this nine month old pup Dave recognized that special blend of courage, smarts, loyalty, and desire to please that search and rescue work requires. He put in a call to a buddy at the nearby military base and soon the flat-coated black lab graduated third of thirty in the search and rescue training program.
“Gunner was my soul-mate. He was so special. There are forty-two people on this earth, walking around today, because he found them. Special. We were there after 9/11. Gunner was amazing. There was too much noise at the site. I could only use hand signals. I’d send Gunner out; at thirty feet he would stop and wait for my command. I would move my hand.” At this Dave held out his right arm and, with his index and third fingers extended, he made a small horizontal wave.
“Then Gunner would start his zigzag pattern back toward me, sniffing. That’s how they teach them to search a grid. When they find someone alive, the dog is trained to jump up and down and make a lot of noise. When they find a body or body part they sit. We went to search and rescue, and of course you know it turned out to be all recovery. Gunner would go out, search and sit. Search and sit. He found 30 intact bodies. Thirty! Out of 300 that means my Gunner found ten percent of the bodies recovered. Everything else was an arm here, a hand.” Dave paused. He retired Gunner after that mission was complete, and they traveled together on Dave’s new job as a mover. Gunner succumbed to cancer in 2008.
”He was my soul mate. The dog to replace him hasn’t been born.”
Here’s to all those brave teams of men and women and dogs, who tirelessly searched for days and days through the rubble of the Towers.
Here’s to all those brave teams yet to be created, who will go out again and again, anytime there is tragedy, risking their lives so others may live, or find peace of mind.