Protecting the President: The Critical Role of Military K-9’s
One of our favorite stories over the past few months was getting to know Monica Rodriguez, a Security Forces K-9 handler for the United States Air Force, who was reunited with her very first military K-9 after years of being separated. Against all the odds, Monica was able to adopt her best friend, Stella, a 10-year-old German shepherd she’d worked with in Korea back in 2014, when Stella retired in 2016 (another reason we all wish we were dogs -- retirement comes a lot earlier!). So if you haven’t read that tear-jerker of an article, be sure to check it out at some point.
Monica, unlike the couch-loving Stella, is still in the middle of her career, where she’s spent most of the past three years in her latest position: Andrews AFB (Air Force Base) Presidential K-9, working alongside the Secret Service. At Rex Specs, we recently partnered with Working Dog magazine to deliver even more interesting and relevant content to our readers, and their most recent article is about the secret lives of Secret Service K-9’s. Given the overlap, we figured it was the perfect time to check in with Monica about her job and where it’s taken her.
Monica’s current partner is a 3-year-old Belgian malinois named John, and the two have been proudly serving our country together for two years. “He’s a little on the mean side,” Monica laughs. “He’s very handler protective. He’s a high-strung malinois, so he’s taught me a lot about myself as a handler.” Unlike Stella, who’s focused these days on belly rubs and extra treats, John is a handful with an incredibly high drive -- which is exactly what you want when you’re protecting the president of the United States. “In training, I’ve had busted noses, black eyes, scratches, bites, bruises -- everything,” Monica says without flinching. Comparing John to Stella, she says, “It’s like the difference between a cat and a Tasmanian devil. Mals are wild, that’s just in his bloodline. His endurance levels are off the charts and all he wants to do is work.” But Monica loves her work just as much, which makes them a great team.
He may be high-strung, but John has a personality as big as his work ethic.
Monica recalls being home 7 days out of the 3 months leading up to the election of President Trump -- not that she’s complaining. “I love it. It’s the best job in the Air Force,” she says. Unlike the Secret Service K-9’s focused on in the article from Working Dog magazine, Monica and John aren’t part of the White House security team. She remains within the military and is stationed at Andrews Air Force Base in Washington, D.C, with the mission of Presidential K-9. With 38 people in the Andrews kennels, “It’s the largest operational kennels in the whole Department of Defense,” Monica says. “We’re not the only kennel who does this though, all of the bases with K-9 support contribute to this mission. The difference between our kennel and the others is that we protect America's airfield and work in close quarters to the president. It's our main mission.”
At Andrews air force base, there’s 31 active K-9’s and 31 active handlers. Deployments operate like a lottery system -- “if your name gets drawn, you’re going on this mission or that mission,” Monica reports. “I have a passport, so I’ve been granted ability to go on overseas missions.”
Monica’s and John’s duty can be summed up in three words: protect the president. The rule of thumb is K-9’s are always first in and first out. “We get [to a location] an ample amount of time before [the president] to clear a perimeter,” Monica says, keeping the details of how they do this under wraps for the security of the United States. “We search everything from top to bottom to secure a site or multiple sites. We work closely with the Secret Service and also don’t go anywhere without the Explosive Ordinance Disposal Technicians, because if the dog does find something the EOD techs will take it from there.” And yes, just like the Secret Service, Monica and John are still on site when the president is -- but you won’t be able to find them all that easily. “We’re always there,” she says. “We hang out in the background -- we’re always on standby, mainly for vehicle checkpoints. Obviously, if packages or anything comes in, we have to check that as well.”
The job isn’t one for the masses. The work is hard, and the days are long. Monica was sent to Saudi Arabia early on in Trump’s presidency, and immediately after the long flight over her 12-hour shift began. It’s also almost impossible for Monica to visit family or have them come visit her because the job has to come first, and deployments come at the drop of a hat.
Luckily, Monica’s husband is also in the military and knows the drill. “He’s also a K-9 handler,” Monica says. “My husband worked a dog for about 6 years until he was granted a trainer position, so he’s training the handlers and K-9 teams back at Andrews. While I travel often, he stays home and does an amazing job making sure everything gets taken care of. Without him, I wouldn’t be able to be as flexible with my job, and I will always be forever grateful. We are a team. We did have one situation where he was training in Alabama and I was holding things down at home, then I got notice that I had to leave in 48 hours to go to Saudi Arabia.” Despite the challenges military duty can pose on one’s personal life, for Monica and her husband it’s just all a part of the job, and they wouldn’t trade it for anything. “Job comes first,” Monica says. “Service before self.”
While military K-9 handlers are trained in basic vet care, they’re often limited by budget in terms of supplies and equipment for the dogs. When we talked, Monica had recently received a medical kit from Project Paws Alive, a nonprofit with a mission to provide lifesaving K-9 equipment such as bullet & stab-proof vests, first aid kits, vehicle heat alarms, cooling vests, and pet oxygen mask kits to Law Enforcement, Fire, Search & Rescue, EMS and Military nationwide. Monica is incredibly thankful for organizations like Project Paws Alive. Without them, she wouldn’t have a medical kit designed specifically for John. “I take the kit everywhere I go,” she says. “They’re very expensive, and we’re very limited to what we have on base.”
With deployments that have had her and John going everywhere from Saudi Arabia to Brussels to France, Monica’s job is incredibly rewarding and likely to continue bringing her to new places.
As to whether or not she kicks back with Obama and Trump at the end of a mission, she laughs and says, “I think one of our handlers got a selfie with Biden.” But her tone quickly becomes serious. “They know we’re there, but I’ve never met them personally. We stay in the backdrop -- we’re not there to meet them, we’re there to protect them.”