Since 2006, Bodza had worked with the U.S. Air Force as an explosive detection dog, and he’d helped save human lives by sniffing out bombs in operations in Iraq, Kyrgyzstan and Kuwait. Smith didn’t start working with Bodza until 2012, but the two of them formed a fast and lasting friendship.
Through four deployments in places like Kuwait and Kyrgyzstan, U.S. Air Force veteran Kyle Smith always felt safe with his beloved military service dog, Bodza, by his side.
That’s why there was no way Smith was going to leave Bodza even though it broke his heart as his 11-year-old German shepherd was put down last week to end his suffering from painful health issues.
So, when Bodza, an 11-year-old German shepherd, was on his deathbed, Smith didn’t imagine being anywhere else but by his side.
Smith is an instructor for military working dogs specializing in ground combat. He trains every Air Force dog team in the continental United States at a center in El Paso, Texas. Bodza was the first dog he worked with after joining the military — he adopted him after the dog retired from military service two years ago.
“He was even more loyal at home,” Smith said. “He followed me around everywhere. He would lay his head down flush with the bed and tell me good night, every night.”
Following Bodza’s death, one of his fellow military trainers helped find an American flag in the office to cover the dog. Smith felt it was only fitting because when Bodza retired from military service, he wasn’t given a formal ceremony like other dogs had received.
“For him not to get the proper retirement, I felt like this was special and justified,” Smith said. “All these dogs get little to nothing in return, but all they want in life is for you to be there for them and let them know that you love them.”
After Smith noticed Bodza dragging his hind legs and slipping on smooth surfaces last month, he took him to the veterinarian. The dog was diagnosed with degenerative myelopathy, a disease of the spinal cord often found in older dogs.
Smith had a tearful FaceTime session with his parents and brother, who helped take care of Bodza when Smith was deployed in Kuwait in 2015. He then took the dog to the veterinarian to say goodbye, where he was joined by several of his supportive co-workers, many of whom had never met Bodza.
“Bodza was a goofy and gentle dog,” Smith said. “We had horse stables directly beside our obedience yard and when [the horses] were out, no obedience was going to be done. He’d run the fence line continuously.”
“Even before he was actually going to sleep, I was holding him, and I was losing it,” Smith said. “You know it’s going to happen and you can try to prepare for it, but you know it’s gonna hurt.”
Smith noted that there are military members across the country in all branches working with canines, so this is just one instance of the bond that develops between them.
“Bodza was the start of my canine career, so when I look at that photo, I think of every moment from day one,” he said.
The grief that this man in uniform poured out over his partner had everyone at the clinic in tears. After he had spent some time alone with the dog, several other members of the Air Force came in. The K9 was placed on a gurney, draped with an American flag, saluted, and carried out with full military precision.
It took my breath away and still does every time I think about it. There are so many dogs, cats, horses, dolphins, and other animals who have served our country and done so without hesitation and without regard for their own well being. Many have given their lives. We have not always done right by them, but they are all worthy of remembrance and honor. They, too, are heroes.