Editor’s note: This is the third of a three part series on the retirement of a military working dog
It’s seven in the morning at Spangdahlem Air Base, Germany. Speaker systems blare a bugler recording of reveille that echoes throughout the installation.
But the “music” doesn’t end when the recording stops. Like clockwork, all the military working dogs at the 52nd Security Forces Squadron begin howling, as if the bugle tones gave them orders to charge the enemy.
All the MWDs, that is, except one.
Robson, an eight-year-old German shepherd nicknamed ‘Robbie,’ looks around the perimeter of his gated pen.
Robbie, now a former military working dog after yesterday’s retirement ceremony, looks at his surroundings as if taking a mental picture of the environment that had been his home for the last six years.
Throughout that time, he slept in similar cages during months of qualification training at Lackland Air Force Base, Texas in 2007. In fact, the handlers seemed to use the same décor when he stayed in Iraq during his deployment and throughout Europe while performing security sweeps for the President and Vice President of the United States.
Yet the night he spent in his pen would be his last one.
This day – March 11, 2014 – is proverbially the first day of the rest of his life.
He’d no longer be Robson L096, 52nd SFS MWD.
He’s now Robbie, the loyal dog of his new owner, David Simpson – also a retired U.S. Air Force technical sergeant and his former handler of four years.
“No more working, no more biting – just enjoy the rest of his days; that’s my goal for him,” said Simpson, while inside the kennel for the first time since retiring in May 2013. “He’s got an orthopedic dog bed, a lot of dog treats and a lot of love waiting for him. I’m a full-time student and have nothing but time to give him.”
The familiar sight of seeing Robson is soon accompanied by the pungent aroma, as most dog owners know — yet Simpson didn’t seem to mind.
“Once you work it, you don’t even recognize the smell anymore,” he said, recounting years of the similar routine of going to work. “Handlers that love doing this don’t mind the dirty part either.”
Simpson – preparing to take Robbie back to his home in Florida – recounted they were first teamed together at Spangdahlem with fondness.
“The first day I met him, he was rambunctious, playful and young,” Simpson said. “I took him for a walk and did some rapport training with him. The first day, he just wanted to play mostly.”
Like the trust between all members on a team, Simpson said building the relationship between the human and the dog is of vital importance to doing the job well.
“You need to develop a bond with a dog – pet him, give him a bath, take him for walks, just building that friendship,” said Simpson, recalling the many instances he first had with Robson. “It’s extremely important. If you don’t have the bond, the dog is not going to want to work for you.”
That connection can only prove more important when your partner (a dog) also happens to be trained in explosive detection.
“If you’re out there searching vehicles or fields for whatever, you’ve got to have that bond,” Simpson said. “If he doesn’t work for you, you’re not going to find what you’re looking for. And that could be in a situation where it could be deadly for you or other people.”
Even on the installation, Simpson said the role of the humans who lead the dogs on a leash share a greater contribution than most people may realize.
“A lot of times, people see us out walking around and think we’re just walking a dog – but there’s a lot more to it,” Simpson said. “Everything that we do, even with play, is a part of training. We have to be consistent with everything. There’s a lot more to the job than meets the eye.”
“I know everybody says this, but this is the best job, to me, in the military,” Simpson said. “You get to go out, play with your dog all day while doing real world missions and training. It’s an enjoyment — I couldn’t see myself doing any other job in the military other than this.”
On this early morning, Simpson guides Robbie out of his pen for the last time.
Fellow 52nd SFS dog handlers bid farewell to Simpson and offer one last scratch behind Robbie’s ears.
Robbie then hops into a smaller cage in the back of an SUV – just one more confined space to get into before a transatlantic flight brings him to his new home.
He presses his snout to the cage – the sun’s rays over the Eifel region kiss his coat one last time.
He’s not high strung or whining about the coming ordeal. He is at peace — just like he was when he first recalled Simpson’s presence after a long absence.
Simpson and Robbie first met at the kennel as dog handler and MWD years ago.
As the car pulled out of the same kennel parking lot, Simpson and Robbie departed Spangdahlem as they had been for all their time here together: the very best of friends.
Series photos by Staff Sgt. Joe W. McFadden, Senior Airman Rusty Frank and Airman 1st Class Dillon Davis // Courtesy photos also provided
Series videos by Senior Airman Rusty Frank