Our Military Service Dogs

If that doesn’t kill you the rapid heating of the air can cauterize your airway, cooking you from the inside out.

Then there’s the shrapnel, indiscriminate pieces of rock and metal tearing through your body. As one soldier mildly put it, “All in all it’s something to avoid.”

Then there are our four-legged guardians who protect our service men and women from this horrible end.

Dogs like Mike, a Belgian Malinois, a military K9 pictured here with his handler, Sergeant First Class Matthew Bessler. Mike had recently sniffed out a cache of EFPs and IEDs buried 3 feet under ground outside Baghdad. During “Major Mike’s” two tours in Iraq, he located over 2,000 lbs. of explosives and weapons and saved countless lives in the process. You might well ask how a dog is able to sniff out explosive buried so deep in the earth?

Many of these combat dogs are called MPCs (Multi-Purpose Canines) – Tracking, patrol, and explosives detection. These service dogs lead the way onto the battlefield with their handlers close behind.

Their handlers establish a bond with their animals, a trust and love that few understand. But all pet owners can surely relate to some degree.

Matt Bessler served as a Green Beret with 9 combat deployments spanning 21 years of duty. He was the first and only handler of Mike. Mike’s availability and flexibility were astounding even at an early age. Mike knew who was friend and foe. A dog’s mind can sense danger differently than humans. Mike intrinsically knew how to protect you.

But most of all, Mike was a happy dog.

On Mike’s final tour, he would prove himself to be one of the greatest dogs to ever serve. Matt told me, “We were about to breach a door when Mike indicated. Always trust when a dog indicates. Turns out the door had explosive rigged to it. When we blew that door it triggered a secondary charge blowing another door. You believe that? Mike saved everybody. He wasn’t done either. Mike was the first inside the house and he found this wall, this nothing wall, and indicated. Finally after much deliberation one of our guys just walked up kicked a hole in that wall in revealing a huge cache of enemy weapons.

“I don’t really know what happened that day but, after that raid, Mike stopped indicating. I suppose he was done with war. I was too. I had PTSD and TBI (traumatic brain injury). I figured Mike had seen enough too. Mike was later diagnosed with PTSD as well.”

Before he retired, Mike was promoted to Captain.

PTSD and Mike could control my anxiety. He kept me active, which is the most important thing. I would go on many walks with him. We took care of each other.”

Mike liked playing in the yard, which is what he was doing the day of October 15th, 2015 when Matt was away on a date with his girlfriend.

That’s when a man riding a bicycle with a Judge .410 revolver strapped to his handlebar shot Mike. Mike didn’t die instantly. He limped back to the garage behind Bessler’s house where he laid down, and died.

There were no witnesses. The neighbors were known to have loose dogs and the man who shot Mike was known to not like those dogs. The man claimed he was attacked by Mike but everybody knew better. A later autopsy would reveal Mike was shot from behind, contradicting any claim of an frontal attack. The 59-year old man was unharmed.

Donations poured in from across the country. $10,000 was raised to help Matt pay for a burial with military honors, war dogs are not entitled to funerals or burials with military honors.

For Matt, he has lost a family member. “Mike was my other half” he told a local paper.

Mike was buried on Veterans Day with Matt’s two Bronze Stars and his favorite tennis ball. On that grey and ominous day, Matt promised to create a War Dog Memorial in Wyoming honoring not only Mike, but all service dogs, past present and future.

With the help of the legendary Colonel Buck Wilkerson and Carol Armstrong, who head up the memorial project at the State of Wyoming Veterans Memorial Park, an idea took shape to create a life-sized bronze memorial honoring all war dogs, one of the few that will be accessible to the public (many are on military bases and civilian access is limited).

Vietnam veteran painter and sculptor, John Phelps said, “It is my honor to create this bronze, one of the few such statures in the United States and the first of its kind in Wyoming. It will honor all service dogs but it is inspired, in image and likeness, by Mike.”

Paving stones will be placed at the base of the stature to memorialize all service dogs who gave the last full measure fighting for our freedom.

Matt standing in the plot of land where the memorial will be constructed.

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