WASHINGTON — Without Coffee, U.S. Army Sgt. First Class James Bennett wouldn’t have the family he has now: three young children under 8 and a wife of 17 years.
Coffee, a retired military working dog who served with Bennett for 9½ years, is credited with bringing him home safe. For that reason, Bennett’s wife, U.S. Army veteran Lindsay Bennett, nominated Coffee for the American Humane’s K-9 Medal of Courage award.
On Wednesday, Coffee and four other retired military working dogs were honored on Capitol Hill for their service to the country.
“It’s estimated that each of these dogs saved 250 lives,” Dr. Robin Ganzert, president said chief executive officer of animal welfare nonprofit American Humane, said during the ceremony. “It reminds me that each dog allows so many servicemembers to come home to be moms and dads or sons or daughters.”
Describing the dogs as unsung heroes, Marine Lt. Gen. Brian Beaudreault, deputy commandant for plans, policies and operations, said their recognition is long overdue.
“These four-footed warriors served alongside servicemen and women, fighting as they do to protect our freedom, and often are subjected to the very same hazards and hardships as our servicemen and women,” Beaudreault said.
In Iraq and Afghanistan, Coffee faced the same hardships as Bennett. Unlike other military working dogs who switch handlers, Coffee and Bennett stayed together during their military service. Known as a specialized search dog, Coffee worked off-leash long range looking for roadside bombs.
“In order to do that, we don’t have a lot of control over the dog. It’s more of a bond or they have to want to do it. ... The dogs would [change locations] with the handlers to continue to build that bond so we were able to work those long distances and not have to rely on physical means to control the dog,” Bennett said.
Coffee and Bennett worked together for almost 10 years.
“As far as dangerous situations, they are all dangerous. Things like our first deployment, they were getting hit heavily with IEDs, we went in there, and within 30 days (the Taliban) quit using IEDs. They were afraid of Coffee,” he said.
“The way I look at it is, every mission I ever ran — which is way too many — we all came home. Every one of us soldiers she touched, including myself, came home alive. She pulled me out of pretty much every mission I went to,” Bennett said.Coffee, who worked until December 2013, also kept morale up on base when they returned from patrols.
“She would go to the soldiers, play ball. She would lay down, snuggle. She was always interacting with the soldiers,” Bennett said.
Coffee wasn’t the only bomb-sniffing dog being honored. Ranger, adopted by retired police sergeant Kirk Adams about five years ago, served in Afghanistan and Iraq where he worked as an explosives-detection dog specializing in roadside bombs.In 2012, Ranger suffered from heatstroke while in Iraq and was retired.
“He was pretty high-key, pretty stressed out when we first got him. It took him quite a while to relax a little bit. I think he still thought he was on the job,” Adams said. “He finally figured out he wasn’t working anymore and he’s become a valued family member.”That family consists of Adams’ wife, two beagles and a 9-month-old black lab that he is fostering. Unfortunately, Ranger is battling cancer.
American Humane, founded in 1877, is also involved in several other initiatives, such as the “No Animals Were Harmed” program in Hollywood; farm and conservation animal welfare certifications; and rapid response rescue and care across the country.
The nonprofit has been working with the military since World War I, where volunteers with American Humane (https://www.americanhumane.org/program/military/) deployed to rescue and care for 68,000 wounded war horses each month. According to its website, American Humane provides service dogs to veterans with PTSD and recognizes the work of military working dogs.
Meanwhile, Coffee is enjoying retirement life.
“It’s really comfortable. Coffee always snuggles,” Bennett’s daughter Madeline said. “She mostly eats a lot.”
Five military dogs honored
Coffee: Coffee and Sgt. First Class James Bennett served together 9 ½ years for three tours of duty in Afghanistan. She never once failed to bring home all the soldiers she was sent to protect.
Alphie: Alphie did two tours in Afghanistan, entering and clearing villages of IEDs, making vital finds of weapons and communication equipment, and working with warriors to surprise the Taliban, as well as taking out processing plants for illegal narcotics. Alphie worked with Marine Lance Cpl. William Herron in Helmand province and had several close calls -- being shot at numerous times, almost falling out of a V-22 Osprey that was under fire. Alphie, 7, works as a member of the TSA’s elite Canine Explosives Detection Program.
Capa: The 10-year-old retired military working dog has been awarded the Navy and Marine Corps Commendation Medal for meritorious service. He was deployed to Iraq where he worked explosives and patrol and provided security on missions protecting the president. He helped provide safety for a dozen Naval ships and 26,000 personnel -- including his handler, Navy Master-at-Arms Petty Officer Second Class Megan Wooster. Wooster adopted Capa, but is getting ready for a deployment, so he is living with Wooster’s mother.
Ranger: He served in Afghanistan and Iraq, where he worked as an explosives-detection dog specializing in IEDs. He suffered from heatstroke in 2012 and retired from service. He is currently battling cancer.
Gabe: He completed more than 210 combat missions with 26 explosive and weapons finds in Iraq. He is being remembered in memoriam; he died in February 2013 in the arms of his adopter, retired Army Sgt. First Class Chuck Shuck. Gabe was a pound puppy in Texas when he was adopted and trained by the military. He was selected as the American Kennel Club Heroic Military Working Dog in 2008 and won the top title of American Hero Dog at the annual national American Humane Hero Dog Awards in 2012.