When Monica Rodriguez first walked into an Air Force recruiter’s office in 2009, she pointed at a poster of a K-9 handler on the wall and said, “I want to do that.” Becoming a K-9 handler is not an easy job to get -- before she could even be considered for the position she’d first have to put in three years at her primary job, Security Forces, which involved law enforcement and several six month deployments to Afghanistan as part of security operations. In 2012, she was accepted into the K-9 training program, but before attending the handlers course - a 13 week program in San Antonio - she had to complete another deployment to the middle east. In April of 2013, she finally left Keesler Air Force base in Biloxi, Mississippi and was stationed at Kunsan Air Base in South Korea where she met her first partner, a German shepherd named Stella.
“The dogs are assigned to the base,” Monica says. “So wherever we go, that’s where we meet our dogs.” This is different than what you might think, considering the bond that has to be formed between a handler and a K-9 to work together. “A bond between the handler and K-9 can ultimately be lifesaving. "In Korea, I was only with Stella for one year, but I formed this strong bond with her and to leave her behind with someone else was very, very difficult.”
Their work in South Korea was mainly doing perimeter security. Stella was a patrol narcotics detection dog. “It’s a lot of walking through dormitories,” Monica explains. “Just like anywhere else, people are going to be people. There are drugs everywhere -- we weren’t really focused on the anti-terrorist aspect, we were policing the base.” Drugs are a bigger problem on military bases than the public realizes, ranging from marijuana to opiods to methamphetamine. For Stella and Monica, the job was to make the base safer for everyone, whether it was a bomb threat or the removal of drugs from the dorms.
As if Stella wasn’t talented enough, she's also trained to detect people from up to 250 yards away and has a higher than usual sense of hearing and seeing at night. What’s so great about this? “Let’s say our base were to be invaded,” Monica says. If it was the middle of the night, she and Stella can post on the perimeter and detect the enemy well before anyone else. Sentry dogs date back to WWII when they were used to detect the enemy. Again -- the safer the base, the better.
Just a year into their work together, Monica noticed that Stella’s legs would sometimes give out. She learned Stella had a degenerative disease that eats away at the muscles in her spine, meaning she will eventually be unable to walk. By 2016, Stella's base knew it was time to retire her -- and she would hopefully be hanging out on someone’s couch for her retirement. Monica wanted to be that somebody.
“The thing with me and Stella, is she was my first dog - so she left a huge imprint on my heart. You never forget your first dog,” Monica says. “She was there for me when I thought I was at an all-time low and, yes, she's just a dog, but the love and selflessness a dog can give you is unforgettable. You only feel this with certain dogs. It’s what I felt with Stella.” When Monica had to leave Korea, she felt like she had lost a big part of herself in having to leave Stella behind. “The only regret I had leaving Korea was not hugging her a little longer or spending just a little more time with her.” She kept in contact with the handlers at the base to try to ensure she would be able to have Stella when she was up for retirement. “There was an article published that I saw on Stella that said she was going to someone else for retirement -- I was so hurt.”
Against the odds, Monica was able to reverse the situation and secure Stella to come home to her, but it wasn’t an easy process. “I was separated from her for over two years, and the retirement process took about six months.” The six months consisted of paperwork and getting Stella medically ready to retire. According to Monica, it can be a very lengthy process to adopt a dog when its their time to retire.
“I thought my husband and I were going to have to empty our savings to go to Korea and get her,” Monica remembers. But for her and so many others, this is where the amazing work of organizations like Mission K-9 Rescue and the US War Dog Association can step in and help out. They paid for all the expenses to bring Stella back, something Monica still can’t express enough gratitude for.
“When I first saw her, it’s like when you haven’t seen somebody in years and they’ve aged so much.” But Stella immediately popped up when she saw Monica. “It was like we were both in shock. I was crying my eyes out, it was such an amazing feeling to see her again.”
To have been through so much together, and to be reunited with your first working partner, is an experience most of us won’t have. But all of us who’ve had a special dog in our lives knows what Monica describes -- “They’re not just dogs, they're family.”
These days, Stella still tries to get up on the couch, but her legs are getting worse, so stairs and big jumps aren’t as easy on the now 10-year-old. Knowing the inevitable may only be a couple years away, Monica makes the most of every moment with her pup. “She’s still so spunky and full of life, it’s a matter of how long her body will keep up with her.” And when the time comes, Monica knows she isn’t going to let Stella suffer. “We’ll be giving her steak and celebrating her life and selfless service to our great country, I’m already mentally preparing for it.” But for now, she’ll keep curling up right beneath Monica’s feet, gnawing away at her favorite toys, reunited with her best friend.