CAMP LEMONNIER, Djibouti -- In the sun-blasted, 100-degree heat here, a military working dog is being held on a short leash. Rex, a German shepherd, is a muscular 85 pounds and covered in thick, brown fur.
His partner and handler, Navy Petty Officer 3rd Class Jordan Fuentes, a master-at-arms, barks out commands, but Rex's wagging tail signals that his mind is elsewhere.
An observer suggests that the humans take off their hats for comfort.
"I wouldn't do that," Fuentes said.
Why? Does Rex become aggressive with the removal of hats? Is it a signal to attack?
No. Rex loves to steal hats to play with, Fuentes said. Rex likes to play with a lot of things. He looks for fun wherever he is -- and of course does not know he has been diagnosed with cancer.
Rex, officially known as military working dog T-401, was diagnosed while being treated for an ear infection.
"I noticed dry spots on his ears," Fuentes said. "I waited a little bit to mention it to the vet since I thought it was a reaction to the medicine."
Fuentes said that ear infections are common in military working dogs that are deployed to desert areas because of the large amount of sand that gets into their ears, which, in Rex's case, are prominent.
Rex was first examined in March by the Camp Lemonnier veterinarian, Army Capt. Richard Blair. During a follow-up examination, Blair noticed other skin lesions that raised additional concerns.
"We had to dig deeper to determine what was really going on," Blair said. Possible reason for the lesions included a reaction to the medication, a skin infection, or even allergies.
While the facilities at Camp Lemonnier are appropriate for the everyday care of working dogs, the base does have some limitations due to its remote location, Blair said. So, he worked with other vets in the area of operation to determine what caused the lesions.
"After some logistics challenges, we were able to get our samples submitted to a pathology lab in Germany," Blair said. "After a few weeks, we got the results back."
Fuentes said that he was working with Rex at the dog kennel on base when his kennel master got the call from Blair.
"Cancer was the last thing I would have thought of," Fuentes said. "My heart sank when I heard the news."
Getting Care, Beach Time
Rex has been a military working dog his entire life. He's been deployed several times, including two tours here.
His behavior has not changed since the diagnosis, Fuentes said. He's still a sweet dog who just wants to play tug of war.
Fuentes reached down and scratched Rex between his ears.
The bonds between service members can be strong. Serving in a combat zone, working long hours, getting through stressful situations and living together in small spaces has a way of making the bonds stronger.
Rex and Fuentes live together in a 7-by-20 container. Fuentes joked that Rex likes to take up all of it.
"He's obnoxious," Fuentes said. "He's all up in your business, taking all of your space."
The data on dogs with cancer is not as complete as it is on humans with cancer, Blair said. As a result, Rex's prognosis isn't certain, but getting him sent back to the U.S. is vital to his treatment.
At home, "he can get to more definitive care," Blair said.
Rex will be redeployed in early August. His retirement paperwork has also been started.
After retirement, Rex "won't have to work and can enjoy the rest of his life -- just chilling," Fuentes said.
Fuentes is scheduled to redeploy with Rex and said he hopes to adopt him -- but he isn't the only person trying. A former handler is also interested.
"It's a race to the end to see who gets him," Fuentes said.
Fuentes will be returning to Naval Air Station Lemoore, California. Rex has never been to the beach, he said, and he'd like to take him there.
Navy Capt. Charles J. DeGilio, Camp Lemonnier's commander, presented Rex with a Navy and Marine Corps Commendation Medal at a ceremony here July 27.
DeGilio said that military working dogs, including Rex, fill an important role.
"Rex has served honorably to help keep the men and women of Camp Lemonnier safe," DeGilio said. "I want to personally thank him for his service and wish him fair winds and following seas."