March 20, 2014

The last bite

Commentary by Senior Airman Christopher Reel
325th Fighter Wing Public Affairs
(U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Christopher Reel)
Staff Sgt. Justin Paczesny, 325th Security Forces Squadron military working dog handler, has his fiancée, Andrea Plumb, and his supervisor’s retired military working dog, Arco, tack on his staff sergeant stripes Feb. 28 at the March Enlisted Promotion Ceremony at Horizons Community Center.

TYNDALL AIR FORCE BASE, Fla. – Shake, take, salute and pose for a photo–Tyndall’s 2014 March Enlisted Promotion Ceremony was carrying on as usual. I raised my camera, waited for the grip and grin moment and then took the photo of family members tacking on the member’s stripes. As I raised my camera, getting ready for the next enlistee, the narrator introduced the new staff sergeant, his fiancée and retired military working dog to the stage.

The audience began to laugh at the thought of a dog tacking on this sergeant’s stripes. But just as soon as the audience began to chuckle, the narrator said, “Arco, the retired military working dog, was diagnosed with an aggressive form of cancer earlier this morning and is expected only a few more days to live.”

The audience’s laughter quickly drew silent, as collectively everyone seemed to process what the narrator just said. A ballroom with hundreds of people, for a few moments, sounded completely lifeless, as Staff Sgt. Select Justin Paczesny, 325th Security Forces military working dog handler, fitted a bite wrap on his arm and prepared for Arco and his fiancée to tack on his stripes. As I fought back watery eyes and prepared to take the shot, I wondered, if a picture is really worth a thousand words, what is Arco’s story?

Retired MWD Arco is the dog and Wingman of Staff Sgt. Axel Rodriguez-Rodriguez, 325th SFS MWD trainer and Paczesny’s supervisor.

Arco was a patrol, trained to bite, explosives detection dog stationed in Rodriguez’s team at Aviano Air Base, Italy from 2004 to 2011.

During Arcos’ time in service, Arco deployed to United Arab Emirates and conducted base search pit duties searching approximately 10,000 vehicles during his time spent there. Arco also deployed to Balad, Iraq and conducted 88 combat missions outside the wire. During those combat missions, Arco found one improvised explosive device, several mortar tubes and numerous unexploded ordnances, which saved countless lives in the fight to counter terrorism, explained Rodriguez.

While not deployed, Arco would conduct normal base security operations to include, mobile patrol, walking patrols and search pit detections.

“I never had a chance to work with him as a handler, but I was the team’s trainer for a year at Aviano until he retired,” Rodriguez said. “The seven years that Arco was on active duty he was handled by three handlers. Tech. Sgt. Aaron DeMarte was his last handler before Arco retired.

Arco retired due to hip problems and arthritis. Because of his past behavior around other dogs, he needed an experienced person to adopt him, Rodriguez explained.

DeMarte wanted to adopt Arco, but received orders to Royal Air Force Lakenheath, England.

“I decided to adopt Arco and he lived at my home in Italy until I received orders to Tyndall,” said Rodriquez. “We arrived at Tyndall in March, 2013. Then this past January, I started to notice Arco was having trouble keeping food and water down. I decided to have him seen at the Tyndall vet due to having a great working relationship with them. We (the kennel unit) bring our active duty MWD’s down there a lot for normal checkups.”

Capt. Jordan Baumguard, 325th Medical Group veterinarian, and Staff Sgt. Kyle Trim, 325th Medical Group veterinary technician, took a liking to Arco right away and worked very hard to find out was going on with Arco, Rodriquez explained.

Baumguard tried different medications, but Arco did not like taking them and would refuse to eat. Then on Feb. 28, the day of the promotion ceremony, Baumguard found numerous tumors all over Arco’s body during an ultrasound.

“She informed me that Arco probably had at most two to six weeks to live,” Rodriguez said. “I left the vet office and arrived to the kennels on base.”

Waking up that morning, little did Rodriguez realize that Arco would give his last bite that day.

Paczesny heard of the news and asked Master Sgt. Michael Mellen, 325th SFS Kennel Master, if it would be okay if Arco could tack on his stripe, and he would be honored to give Arco his last bite. Mellen and Rodriguez agreed it would be nice to do that for both the dog and Paczesny.

“It was a very emotional day for everyone at the kennels, because we understand that Rodriguez is pretty much losing his best friend, and they have been through a lot together,” Paczesny said. “I was honored to ‘catch’ Arco for the last time, and to have it be at the promotion ceremony was a really special–a real bittersweet day for me.”

Paczesny has been working at the K9 section for six months and just a few days prior to his promotion became a certified team with his military working dog, Mica.

“The dogs are the best part of the job,” Paczesny said. “From the moment you walk into the kennels with your leash to pull your dog, the dog is excited to work and train. If you were having a bad day or didn’t necessarily feel like working that day, seeing your dog is an instant shot of happiness and boost of motivation.”

The wingmanship handlers and their dogs seem closer and stronger than what most Airmen have with their fellow Airmen. The strength and trust of the Airman to K9 partnership is the beneficial factor to the success of their mission.

As Paczesny and Mica work to be the best explosives and patrol component they can be, Rodriguez reminisces back to when Arco retired from the Air Force.

“Arco is the first retired MWD I have had the honor to adopt,” said Rodriguez. “The cost of keeping him with me is nothing compared to what is owed to him for the lives he helped return to their families.”

One memory Rodriguez would like to share was of a day back in Italy.

“We always wondered how Arco would react to kids,” said Rodriguez. “While still in the military, people are not allowed to approach MWD’s. We always thought Arco would be a little hesitant and nervous around children. Then one day, maybe three weeks at most after Arco’s retirement, I was buying food on an outdoor food stand with Arco on leash. As I looked back over at him, he was sitting down and a three-year-old little girl has her face as close as she could to his and was grabbing him by the cheeks. I thought Arco was going to shake her off or worse, over react. But, Arco looked straight at the child and gave her a huge kiss.”

That’s when Rodriguez knew Arco had officially transitioned from a working dog to the retired life.

“The thing I love the most about being a dog handler is the bond we create with them,” said Rodriguez. “We spend long hours with these dogs. When we have to work in the heat or the pouring rain, they are right next to us without a complaint. They eat before we do; they get taken care of before we do.

“When one of them passes we suffer like they are family members, and they are remembered as such,” added Rodriquez. “I know Arco has made a lot of friends and created a lot of great memories for those who worked beside him. Seeing him give his last bite at the promotion ceremony reminded me how much he still loved his job. It brought tears to my eyes.”

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