Paybacks: Military dog gets his day in Aurora after four tours of duty

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AURORA | Mick has spent the better part of his life keeping fellow soldiers safe. Now, a fellow Marine from Aurora is returning the favor.

As he bound up the escalator in the Jeppesen Terminal at Denver International Airport on Thursday morning, a pack of photographers circled around the star of the show, creating  a media dog pile. It was fitting since Mick is a black Labrador retriever retiring as a four-legged bomb detector in the Afghanistan.

Reporters and photographers hunched over Mick trying to get a good quote or camera angle  as the military officially reunited Mick with a former fellow soldier in the airport.

The crowd had gathered to see the 7-year-old black Labrador retriever , a now former-working dog for the United States Marine Corps, reunite with his previous handler and Aurora native, Marine Corps veteran Corporal Matt Foster.

“I’ve got a lot of mixed emotions, but it’s mostly excitement,” Foster said of seeing his former comrade. “It’s been over a year since I’ve seen this guy, and he’s done a lot for me. I just want to pay him back for everything he’s done.”

Foster and Mick were an almost inseparable duo during Foster’s eight-month tour at Camp Leatherneck in Afghanistan. Mick accompanied Foster on daily patrols – some lasting as long as 12 hours – utilizing his nose to detect and locate bombs, improvised explosive devices. The team was also regularly in charge of walking through and searching a serpentine of vehicles entering the base, ensuring each vehicle was free of IEDs. Mike himself served four tours of duty in Afghanistan.

“It was our job to make sure the base was secure and safe, with no vehicle-born (bombs) trying to harm everybody,” Foster said. “Everybody on that base is relying on you and your dog to make sure everyone is safe and you’re doing the right things.”

Foster has worked tirelessly in the year following his tour in Afghanistan to become permanently reunited with his four-legged companion and officially adopt him. Foster put in his application to adopt Mick and another dog he worked with, a chocolate Lab named Macy, while he was still in Afghanistan. Macy has since been transferred to Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas to continue her military career. With the help of Mission K9 Rescue and the American Humane Association, however, Foster was recently named Mick’s permanent owner.

“It’s a very difficult process to get these dogs,” Foster said. “They’re such a commodity everywhere they go. When they’re done with one company, other companies want them, immediately. K9 Rescue and everything they’ve done for me – words can’t really describe how grateful I am.”

The nonprofit organization seeks to reunite military dogs with their former handlers. The California-based group estimates that there are approximately 5,000 dogs serving in various capacities across all branches of the American military and that each military dog saves approximately 150 to 200 service member lives.

“These dogs are doing the work that nobody else can or wants to do,” Bob Bryant, manager of Mission K9 Rescue said.

Military dogs have only been eligible for adoption since 2000, when congress passed “Robby’s Law,” which allowed for canine service-members to be adopted by their handlers, other members of the military or civilians. Prior to the passage of the law, the dogs were euthanized after being deemed incapable of properly carrying out their duties.

Hundreds of dogs have been saved and re-homed since the law was enacted 14 years ago. K9 Rescue has helped to re-home approximately 55 dogs since 2012, and 15 through the first half of 2014, according to Bryant. Approximately 95 percent of their budget currently goes toward transporting dogs home from foreign theaters. The remaining 5 percent of their funding goes toward office utilities and website maintenance.

Looking forward, Foster, who now works at a veterinary hospital in Denver, said he is excited to show Mick around the Rocky Mountains and have him leave his bomb-sniffing days behind him.

“I’m just extremely ecstatic to repay this dog for everything he’s done for me, give me a good life and just let him be a dog for once in his life,” Foster said.