CRESTVIEW — Somewhere in Afghanistan, an injured veteran of the war on terror sits in a kennel, waiting to be reunited with his best friend.
Joop, an 8-year-old Belgian malinois, tore his ACL while sniffing out explosives and other weapons in the war-torn Central Asian country. While that’s bad news for Joop, his former handler sees a silver lining to the situation.
“I’ve been trying for three years to adopt him,” said Ryan Wasson, Joop’s first official handler. The pair met at a canine training center in Texas on Nov. 19, 2010. Wasson was going to work for a defense contractor that provides canines and their handlers to support military forces.
Joop was about 2 years old at the time and still had plenty of puppy left in him. Because he was considered too “green” — another word for immature — the instructors at the school didn’t think the 70-pound dog would be able to pass the rigorous training program on his first go-around.
“We proved them all wrong,” said Wasson, the pride evident in his voice. “We graduated with the rest of the class, right on time.”
The pair was soon sent to Iraq, where they part in the last year of “official” combat operations. When the majority of forces were withdrawn from the country later that year, Wasson and Joop were transferred to a tiny outpost in Afghanistan in support of a small Army unit.
Joop proved to be an outstanding working dog. He and Wasson were able to detect numerous IEDs, weapon caches and other explosives that could have been used against American troops.
“He is so smart,” the Crestview resident said, his voice choking a bit at the memory. “He’s a true hero.”
While stationed in Afghanistan, the unit Wasson and Joop were supporting suffered many casualties. Although working dogs are not supposed to be treated as pets, Wasson said Joop’s personality made him an source of comfort for the soldiers who had lost a comrade.
“They say that emotions run downleash — if the handler is sad, the dog is going to be sad,” Wasson said. “It think Joop picked up on the fact that the unit was really hurting. He sort of took on the role of ‘morale dog’ for everyone.”
During three years of serving in a war zone, Wasson was able to spend only 57 days with his family back home. In their absence, Joop became Wasson’s baby.
“He went everywhere with me,” Wasson said. “He slept in the bed with me — that is when he didn’t kick me out of the bed.”
The relationship he formed with Joop was different than the ones he had with military working dogs during his previous service in the Air Force’s security forces.
“In the military, your dog is like your gun,” he said. “He’s another tool that you use. They don’t go home with you, so every morning you go to the kennel, pick him up and then take him back to the kennel when your shift is over.”
Toward the end of 2013, Wasson received bad news. Due to the troop drawdown in Afghanistan, his company was laying off most of their dog handlers, himself included.
While he was happy to be going home, Wasson was devastated to learn that he couldn’t take Joop with him.
“I begged the company to let me adopt him,” Wasson said. “But he was still in his prime as a bomb detection dog, so they didn’t want to let him go.”
Wasson still tears up when he recalls the morning when he had to say goodbye to his buddy.
“It was before dawn, and I put him in his kennel,” Wasson said. “I was crying, of course. I wanted to take him home with me so bad.”
For the past three years, Wasson has been calling his former company regularly to ask when Joop might become available for adoption. On Monday, he got the call he’s been waiting for.
“The company told me that since Joop’s injury, they’d be willing to let him be adopted,” Wasson said. “I couldn’t believe it!”
An administrator at the company told Wasson she would “work her magic” to try to get Joop on a flight home by Christmas. One obstacle remained, however.
“Before he can get on a plane, a veterinarian has to sign off that he’s healthy enough to fly,” Wasson said. “The vet there is on leave until Dec. 10, so for now Joop’s just sitting in a kennel.”
Wasson’ wife, Sabrina, said she is thrilled that her husband will soon be reunited with his “fourth baby.”
“He’s missed that dog so much,” she said. “It will be a dream come to true to have him home with us for Christmas.”