The dog that is my best friend: Afghanistan veteran

My best friend is my 11-year-old German shepherd, Fito. He is quirky, fun and occasionally grumpy. What he is most, however, is therapeutic.
 
Fito and I worked as a combat tracking team in the Marine Corps beginning in 2008. Our sole job was to track down insurgents in combat zones, and our relationship was dictated by the needs of a wartime military. That might sound disheartening, but I can assure you it was not. He and I worked at a relentless pace on a daily basis to provide support to the war effort overseas. Our relationship was meaningful, but only I understood the meaning. To him, he was just blessed with a new best friend.
 
To say that I was initially hesitant to become attached to Fito would be a huge understatement. I would see him every morning with a joyful smile on his face and consciously remind myself that our relationship wasn’t one of attachment but one of necessity.
 
In 2010, after 18 months of training in the desert of California, our unit was finally called upon to go to Afghanistan. Fito had no idea where we were going or what we were about to do, and I’m eternally grateful for that ignorance. On the long plane ride overseas, I slept on the floor of the airplane with my head nudged against the door of his kennel. He was uneasy about the loud noises, and I was uneasy about war. Admittedly, it is impossible for any handler to work with a dog for that length of time and not form an attachment. I knew I would need him for comfort despite my emotional reluctance.

War is emotionally, mentally and physically draining. The highest of highs and the lowest of lows can come within a matter of minutes. Heraclitus said, "The only constant in life is change,’’ which makes combat eerily similar to life, albeit magnified exponentially. To Fito, however, I was his constant. From his perspective, he and I were simply living somewhere new. Our missions would take us directly into the line of fire, and I was often envious of how completely oblivious he was to our surroundings. We would return to our base after lengthy missions and, while I would be mentally assessing everything, Fito would drift off to sleep by my feet almost instantaneously.

We returned back home later that year. War had twisted my outlook on life and death. It had even given Fito some gray hairs on his muzzle. However, the most profound change was our relationship. Just as I was beginning to understand the complexity and weighty nature of it, I was told that Fito was to be sent to Texas to help train new handlers without me. As a Marine, I can tell you that possessing a steely reserve and unshakable bearing is at the core of our nature. As a man who loves dogs, I can tell you that it was one of the hardest things I have ever experienced. I was losing the friend I needed most.

Over time, I accepted Fito’s departure without resentment for anyone. I understood the mission in the military outweighed everything else, even the bond we had created. The end of my enlistment came in 2012, and by that time the memories of him were stored and well-preserved. I went on to work with other dogs, but Fito was never far from my thoughts.

Then, in 2014, on a beautiful day in June, I received a phone call from a random number on a random day. The caller informed me that Fito was ready to be retired and asked whether I would be interested in adopting him. Dumbstruck and tongue-tied, I was able to spit out a yes. She told me he was still living in Texas about three hours away. We arranged for a time and place for me to pick him up and, in the days leading up to the reunion, a million thoughts raced through my head. Would he remember me? How had time affected him? The anticipation was exhilarating and ridden with anxiety.

All those questions were answered the second I saw Fito and he saw me. He ran straight toward me as I knelt down to receive his embrace. My outstretched arms happily welcomed him as he barreled into my chest. I’m not certain how long I spent hugging him as he licked my face. It was one of those rare moments in life where time just seems to stop. I realized right then that time and separation couldn’t weaken our relationship.

More than two years later, he is my best friend just as I am his. We spend most of our days together, and I am able to appreciate both life and time better with him. The only changes in Fito are a slower step and more gray hair, and I guess I have experienced the same. We are both aware of the importance of our bond, but I suspect Fito has always known. At the root of his ignorance lies the understanding that it was never in jeopardy. We will never have a better friend than the friend we have in each other.

Jeremy Angenend, a pre-law student and veterans’ advocate, is a four-year Marine Corps veteran who did a six-month tour of Afghanistan in 2010.

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