LANDSTUHL REGIONAL MEDICAL CENTER, Germany -- When an injured handler of a military working dog regains consciousness from a blast or other incident downrange, the first thing they ask is, "How is my dog? How is my dog?"
A Soldier recently injured in Afghanistan asked the same question in the intensive care unit at Landstuhl Regional Medical Center, Germany. When his nurse told him JaJo (pronounced "zsa-zso") was being treated for injuries at a nearby military veterinary clinic, but was doing fine, she said a tear of relief rolled down his cheek.
Only one day after surgery, JaJo, with a bandaged foot and shrapnel wounds visible across his body, was allowed to visit his handler and friend -- an infantry Soldier recovering from the same incident, whose name is being withheld for patient privacy reasons.
Although JaJo had half of his spleen removed and suffered two broken bones in his right-rear foot, the young German shepherd appeared uninjured as he eagerly made his way bedside. Although his handler wasn't initially aware of his visitor, JaJo licked his outstretched hand and was ready to jump up and share the bed. Moments later, an eye opened as JaJo licked his hand again and the Soldier was alert enough give his friend a loving cuddle.
"If he could, JaJo would lay on that bed all day," said Capt. (Dr.) Catherine Cook, officer-in-charge of the Military Working Dog Ward at the Dog Center Europe facility at Pulaski Barracks. Cook said JaJo is expected to recover from his wounds and could be able to deploy again as a Tactical Explosive Detection Dog, but first would be medically evacuated, or medevaced, stateside to convalesce. His handler will also soon be medevaced to the U.S. to continue his long-term recovery.
It was because of the unlikelihood of their paths crossing again that prompted Cook and her staff to help them reunite. She could recall only a handful of previous occasions when both handler and dog were seriously injured and one was physically capable of visiting the other.
JaJo and his handler weren't a traditional K-9 team, in which a handler remains part of the duo until his or her permanent change of station. JaJo's handler is an infantry Soldier who attended an intensive dog handler's course for approximately four weeks. He would be paired up with JaJo only for the duration of his deployment.
It is during the training period where Cook said teams develop a special bond and handlers learn to give commands for seeking out improvised explosive devices.
Cook gives huge credit to the on-scene medics and other medical personnel downrange for helping make the reunion possible. JaJo's treatment in Afghanistan included a chest tube, catheter and other medical treatment for penetrating shrapnel wounds.
"The medics who worked on him did a fabulous job -- high speed. They treated him as well as any human Soldier," said Cook.
The effort to treat military working dogs continues in Germany where Cook and her staff put in long hours caring for canines seriously injured downrange. Being able to experience the reunion helps put the hard work and effort into perspective.
"It's rewarding because you could tell he recognized JaJo," Cook said. "If he only remembers just a little bit of this in the future, it was all worthwhile."