Military couples adopt bomb-sniffing dogs that served in Iraq
By Emily Ford
SALISBURY — During Brandon Shirley’s tour of duty as a Marine in Iraq, he saw many bomb-sniffing dogs.
He watched them work with their handlers and knew they were saving lives.
He even shared his helicopter with the furry four-legged detectors while he was a crew chief and door gunner.
But Shirley, who was terrified of dogs as a child after an attack, never guessed he would one day open his home and heart to a military dog that ended up at the Rowan County Animal Shelter.
Woody and Raka, the retired explosive-detection dogs surrendered in April to the shelter who were awaiting new homes at Faithful Friends Animal Sanctuary, have been adopted.
After a lengthy process that included applications, references and home visits, both yellow Labradors have gone to families with a military background.
Shirley and his wife AnnaLacey, newlyweds who live in Rockwell, adopted Woody, 7.
Air Force veteran Steve and Kathy Matis of Charlotte welcomed Raka, 9.
“I don’t think we could have picked any better homes than what we did,” said Shelley Swaim, Faithful Friends operations manager. “Those dogs have landed in the lap of luxury.”
Initially, Faithful Friends believed the dogs belonged to the U.S. Army. But after weeks of research and with the help of an Army dog handler, Swaim said she determined the dogs actually were owned by Sabre, a military contractor.
That explains why she could not locate their handlers, and why the Army did not pay to ship the dogs home after they were retired, Swaim said.
A veterinary technician who had cared for Raka and Woody in Iraq paid to have them flown home with her in October 2010. They lived with her mother in Rowan County.
But when the vet tech was reassigned to Hawaii, she and her mother could not take the dogs and surrendered them to the shelter, which notified Faithful Friends.
Woody and Raka trained, worked and slept alongside Army dogs, Swaim said, and they protected U.S. military bases and saved lives.
“They are American heroes,” said Mary Padavick, president of Faithful Friends.
Faithful Friends didn’t want Woody or Raka to go to someone looking for a trophy pet to brag about “having a bomb-sniffing dog from Iraq,” Swaim said.
The Shirleys and Matises had no such desire. Both couples were already looking for an older dog to adopt when they discovered Woody and Raka.
The families’ military backgrounds gave them a deeper understanding of what the dogs experienced and the importance of giving them the complete, pampered retirement they deserve.
“He wasn’t brought to this family to exploit any of his history and background,” Steve said of Raka. “He’s probably saved many, many lives. To have him here, it’s a blessing. It’s an honor.
When the Matises lost their eight-year-old yellow Labrador, Tucker, in February to a sudden illness, the couple began searching for another Lab.
After seeing online videos of Woody and Raka, they knew the search had ended.
“With my military background, I felt a connection to these dogs,” said Steve, who served four years active duty with the Air Force in the 1990s, then with the Air National Guard.
When the Matises visited Faithful Friends, Steve went in thinking he would prefer Woody. While the couple would have gladly adopted both dogs, Raka was the one that made a special connection.
“He was so affectionate with us,” Steve said.
The couple brought along their 12-year-old black Lab, Bandit, to gauge his reaction to a possible new playmate or two. Bandit is deaf and had not warmed up to other dogs since Tucker’s death.
To the couple’s delight, Bandit and Raka became fast friends.
Raka arrived at Faithful Friends suffering from a lick granuloma, a form of self-trauma where dogs continuously lick a small area of their body until it becomes raw and inflamed. Basically, Swaim said, Raka had post-traumatic stress disorder.
The Matises treated the infection with antibiotics, and Steve wrapped Raka’s leg every day in a bandage he called “Raka’s pajamas.”
Since his adoption, Raka has stopped licking his leg, and the wound has nearly healed.
Padavick said she worried about adopting out Raka when he had a condition that might worsen or result in financial hardship. But Raka could not heal at Faithful Friends, which, although a sanctuary, was still stressful.
When Kathy emailed a photo of Raka’s healing leg, Padavick said she was flooded with relief.
“That was confirmation that he ended up in the right place,” she said. “The stress in his face is completely gone. I didn’t even recognize that dog.”
Raka wears a collar embroidered with “Sgt. Raka.” But that’s as far as his military connection goes now.
“That’s his past,” Steve said. “His present is to be retired and lay around and play with toys.”
Brandon had never had a dog. Suddenly, he wanted to adopt two 100-pound Labs.
“I fell in love with both of them instantly,” he said.
AnnaLacey, a nurse at Rowan Regional Medical Center, told him he was crazy. Then she met Woody and Raka and changed her mind.
“They are so special,” she said.
During the application process, Brandon visited the dogs for a month.
“I got really tight with Woody,” he said.
Brandon would buy toys marked “indestructible,” but Woody shredded every one. It became a running joke at Faithful Friends.
“I’ve never really had a dog that I’ve bonded with,” Brandon said. “But when they said we could adopt Woody, we’ve been best friends ever since.”
Brandon and AnnaLacey had Woody for two weeks before their June 2 wedding. Brandon and Woody were rarely apart.
Woody sensed Brandon was leaving when he began packing for the honeymoon. Not happy, Woody sat in the suitcase.
On the wedding day, Woody jumped into Brandon’s truck and refused to get out. The dog went to the wedding, where he posed for pictures with the bride and groom before Padavick took him back to Faithful Friends during the honeymoon.
“It was awful,” she said. “He missed them so terribly.”
The reunion was joyous, although Woody held a grudge against Brandon for about 24 hours. The next day, the dog was providing comic relief once again with his antics.
“You look at his face and you can only smile,” AnnaLacey said.
Brandon did not join the military to go to war, but his first day of boot camp was Sept. 11, 2001.
“After that, everything changed,” he said.
He crossed the border into Iraq on the first day of the war in 2003. He went to many of the places where Woody would later serve, and he trusted bomb-sniffing dogs like Woody and Raka to help establish rudimentary bases in the early days of the conflict.
After five years in the military, including multiple honors and two tours of duty in Djibouti, Africa, Brandon will enter nursing school in the fall at Rowan-Cabarrus Community College. He plans to become a flight nurse on a helicopter.
Like Steve with Raka, Brandon feels a connection with Woody.
“I went through a lot at a young age, and so did he,” Brandon said. “I wish he could talk sometimes, so I could find out what he’s thinking.”
Padavick said as she watched Woody and Brandon’s relationship develop, she watched something change in the 28-year-old.
“It was a bit of healing for him as well,” she said.
Woody and Raka have helped their new families as much as the couples have helped the dogs, Padavick said.
“We had a ton of good applications for these dogs, but something just clicked with these two families,” she said. “Not only did these families open their homes and rescue these dogs, but something in both of these families needed rescuing too.”
Contact reporter Emily Ford at 704-797-4264.