It was late—an indistinguishable, bleary-eyed hour. The lamps in the living room glowed against the black spring night. In front of me was a large dog, snapping his jaws so hard that his teeth gave a loud clack with each bark. His eyes were locked on me, desperate for the toy I was holding. But he wasn’t playing—he was freaking out.

This was no ordinary dog. Dyngo, a 10-year-old Belgian Malinois, had been trained to propel his 87-pound body weight toward insurgents, locking his jaws around them. He’d served three tours in Afghanistan where he’d weathered grenade blasts and firefights. In 2011, he’d performed bomb-sniffing heroics that earned one of his handlers a Bronze Star. This dog had saved thousands of lives.

And now this dog was in my apartment in Washington, D.C. Just 72 hours earlier, I had traveled across the country to retrieve Dyngo from Luke Air Force Base in Phoenix, so he could live out his remaining years with me in civilian retirement.

My morning at the base had been a blur. It included a trip to the notary to sign a covenant-not-to-sue (the legal contract in which I accepted responsibility for this combat-ready dog for all eternity), a veterinarian visit for the sign-off on Dyngo’s air travel and tearful goodbyes with the kennel’s handlers. Then, suddenly, I had a dog.

That first night, Dyngo sat on my hotel bed in an expectant Sphinx posture, waiting for me. When I got under the covers, he stretched across the blanket, his weight heavy and comforting against my side. As I drifted off to sleep, I felt his body twitch and smiled: Dyngo is a dog who dreams.

But the next morning, the calm, relaxed dog became amped up and destructive. Just minutes after I sat down with my coffee on the hotel patio’s plump furniture, Dyngo began to pull at the seat cushions, wresting them to the ground, his large head thrashing in all directions. He obeyed my “Out!” command, but it wasn’t long before he was attacking the next piece of furniture.

Inside the hotel room, I gave him one of the toys the handlers had packed for us—a rubber chew toy shaped like a spiky Lincoln log. Thinking he was occupied, I went to shower. When I emerged from the bathroom, it was like stepping into the aftermath of a henhouse massacre. Feathers floated in the air like dust. Fresh rips ran through the white sheets. There in the middle of the bed was Dyngo, panting over a pile of massacred pillows.

Over the course of the morning, Dyngo’s rough play left me with a deep red graze alongside my left breast. On my thighs were scratches where his teeth had hit my legs, breaking the skin through my jeans.

Later, at the airport, with the help of Southwest employees, we swept through the airport security and boarded the plane. The pilot kicked off our six-hour flight by announcing Dyngo’s military status, inspiring applause from the whole cabin. Dyngo was allowed to sit at my feet in the roomier first row, but he soon had bouts of vomiting in between his attempts to shred the Harry Potter blanket I’d brought. I finally pushed it into the hands of a flight attendant, beseeching her to take it as far out of sight as possible—if necessary, to throw it out of the plane.

It was February 2011 when Staff Sgt. Justin Kitts boarded a helicopter with Dyngo. They were on their way to their next mission with the U.S. Army’s 101st Airborne Division on a remote outpost in Afghanistan. Unlike other dogs, Dyngo didn’t shrink away from the beating wind kicked up by helicopter propellers. He bounded in alongside Kitts, hauling himself up onto the seat. As they rose over the white-dusted ridges, Dyngo pushed his nose closer to the window to take in the view. Kitts found a lot of tranquility during these rides together before a mission, just him and his dog, contemplative and still.

On the first day of March, the air was chilly, the ground damp from rain. Kitts brushed his teeth with bottled water. He fed Dyngo and outfitted him in his wide choke chain and black nylon tactical vest bearing the words “MWD Police K-9.”

Dyngo working as a war dog collage with pullquote
Clockwise from far left: Then-Staff Sgt. Justin Kitts, with Dyngo on foot patrol in Afghanistan in 2011; Dyngo poses for his first official portrait in 2009, with his first handler, Senior Airman Brent Olson; Kitts and other members of the 101st Airborne Division playfully “debrief” Dyngo with a patrol map in 2011; Dyngo rests comfortably on a grape wall in Kandahar Province in 2011. (Courtesy of Master Sgt. Justin Kitts (3); Courtesy of Brent Olson)

The plan for the day was familiar. The platoon would make its way on foot to nearby villages, connecting with community elders to find out if Taliban operatives were moving through the area planting improvised explosive devices. The goal was to extend the safe boundary surrounding their outpost as far as possible. Kitts and Dyngo assumed their patrol position—walking in front of the others to clear the road ahead. After six months of these scouting missions, Kitts trusted that Dyngo would keep him safe.

Kitts used the retractable leash to work Dyngo into a grape field. They were a little more than a mile outside the outpost when Kitts started to see telltale changes in Dyngo’s behavior—his ears perked up, his tail stiffened, his sniffing intensified. It wasn’t a full alert, but Kitts knew Dyngo well enough to know he’d picked up the odor of an IED. He called Dyngo back to him and signaled the platoon leader. “There’s something over there, or there’s not,” Kitts said. “But my dog is showing me enough. We should not continue going that way.”

Read more