Inside DOD   Know Your Military

Retired Military K-9 Could Be America’s Top Hero Dog

Oct. 3, 2019 | BY Katie Lange

Sgt. Yeager is living his best life – hanging with his family, playing with his human siblings and giving love in return for some snuggles, just like any K-9 combat veteran deserves.

A black dog licks the face of a smiling woman as she squats down to hug the dog. In the background is the U.S. Capitol building.
Sgt. Yeager, a retired Marine Corps explosives detection dog, licks the face of adoptive mom Caroline Zuendel outside the U.S. Capitol building in Washington, D.C.
A black dog licks the face of a smiling woman as she squats down to hug the dog. In the background is the U.S. Capitol building.
Sgt. Yeager
Sgt. Yeager, a retired Marine Corps explosives detection dog, licks the face of adoptive mom Caroline Zuendel outside the U.S. Capitol building in Washington, D.C.
Photo By: Christina Burke/Sgt. Yeager Facebook page
VIRIN: 190918-O-ZZ999-920

"He’s a lover," said Caroline Zuendel, the 13-year-old Labrador retriever’s adoptive mom. "He’s been a source of joy in our lives."

But the earlier days of Sgt. Yeager’s life weren’t nearly that simple. He’s seen things that most people might never get over.

"We didn’t know his story until we got him," Zuendel said.

A Marine stands in a desert encampment with his military working dog.
Marine Corps Lance Cpl. Abraham Tarwoe poses while on deployment in Afghanistan with his military working dog, Sgt. Yeager. Photo courtesy of Sgt. Yeager Facebook page
A Marine stands in a desert encampment with his military working dog.
Sgt. Yeager
Marine Corps Lance Cpl. Abraham Tarwoe poses while on deployment in Afghanistan with his military working dog, Sgt. Yeager. Photo courtesy of Sgt. Yeager Facebook page
Photo By: Sgt. Yeager Facebook page
VIRIN: 120311-O-ZZ999-925

Wounds of War                  

Sgt. Yeager spent years as a Marine Corps explosive detection dog. He did three combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, finding dozens of bombs during routine bomb-clearing patrols.

In July 2011, he was paired with Lance Cpl. Abraham Tarwoe, who had come to the U.S. when he was 12 to flee the violence of his home country, Liberia. He had joined the Marine Corps in 2009 as a way of giving back to the country that gave him a new start.

Fellow Marines said Tarwoe and Yeager had an unbreakable bond, which made the events of April 12, 2012, all the more devastating. During a patrol in Afghanistan’s Helmand province, a roadside bomb went off. Tarwoe was killed; Sgt. Yeager lost part of an ear and suffered shrapnel wounds.

Four blurred-out Marines aim their rifles toward the sky. In focus in the background, a black dog looks on as several more Marines salute.
Sgt. Yeager
Sgt. Yeager, an explosives detection dog, looks on as a Marine Corps firing detail fires a three-volley salute during an April 22, 2012, memorial service in honor of Lance Cpl. Abraham Tarwoe. Tarwoe was a dog handler and mortarman who died in Afghanistan during combat operations.
Photo By: Marine Corps Cpl. Alfred V. Lopez
VIRIN: 120422-M-PH863-006
Two Marines kneel and bow their heads in front of an empty boot, helmet and rifle that are propped up in remembrance of a fallen Marine. Beside them, a black dog sits on the ground.
Sgt. Yeager
Sgt. Yeager, an explosives detection dog, lies in front of a battlefield cross as Marine Corps Staff Sgt. Derick Clark and Chief Warrant Officer 2 Michael Dale Reeves observe a moment of silence in honor of Lance Cpl. Abraham Tarwoe. Tarwoe, a dog handler and mortarman, died during combat operations in Afghanistan on April 12, 2012.
Photo By: Sgt. Alfred V. Lopez
VIRIN: 120422-M-PH863-012
A U.S. Marine hands a folded American flag to a grieving woman sitting in a chair; she is surrounded by other people.
Sgt. Yeager
U.S. Marine Corps Cpl. Michael Wiles presents a flag to Famata Kar, mother of Lance Cpl. Abraham Tarwoe, at Tarwoe’s memorial service in Flehla, Liberia, May 17, 2012. Tarwoe was born in Liberia, but he immigrated to the U.S. as a child. He was killed in a bomb explosion in Helmand Province, Afghanistan, April 12, 2012. Wiles escorted Tarwoe’s body back to Liberia for burial.
Photo By: Air Force 1st Lt. Mark Lazane
VIRIN: 120517-F-QQ777-523

Tarwoe was buried with full military honors in Liberia – the first time he’d returned home since fleeing as a child. Sgt. Yeager went back to the U.S. to recover; when he was stable again, he retired.

Tarwoe’s wife was taking care of the couple’s infant son and couldn’t adopt her husband’s four-legged work partner, but another Marine Corps family could. So, a few months after the explosion, Sgt. Yeager headed to his new home in Cary, North Carolina, where he’s been enjoying retirement ever since.

A woman and three children sit in grass beside a black dog wearing a blue bandana.
Caroline Zuendel and her three children—Simon, Mariah and MacKenzie Tupper (left to right) – pose with their retired military working dog, Sgt. Yeager.
A woman and three children sit in grass beside a black dog wearing a blue bandana.
Sgt. Yeager
Caroline Zuendel and her three children—Simon, Mariah and MacKenzie Tupper (left to right) – pose with their retired military working dog, Sgt. Yeager.
Photo By: Twig & Feather Photography/Sgt. Yeager Facebook page
VIRIN: 200110-O-ZZ999-086

Accolades Abound

This weekend, Sgt. Yeager and Zuendel will be in Los Angeles where the Purple Heart recipient will be honored at this year’s 2019 American Humane Hero Dog Awards, a nationwide competition that recognizes extraordinary dogs. Sgt. Yeager has already received American Humane’s award for military dog of the year. Now, he’s one of seven finalists for the grand prize — American Hero Dog.

There’ll be a red carpet at the event, celebrity presenters and everything – the whole nine yards. But Zuendel said she’s most looking forward to telling Tarwoe’s story.

"I really love Lance Cpl. Tarwoe’s story," Zuendel said. "[Tarwoe’s] parents had pooled their money to send him to America from Liberia in wartime, so if anyone understood the freedoms we have, it would be Tarwoe."

A black dog lays on a striped blanket with a young girl who is reading a book.
Sgt. Yeager
Sgt. Yeager lounges next to MacKenzie Tupper on a blanket at a soccer field.
Photo By: Caroline Zuendel/Sgt. Yeager Facebook page
VIRIN: 200110-O-ZZ999-193

Moving Forward Together

It’s been seven years since the explosion, and while some of Sgt. Yeager’s scars are still visible, he still displays the same calm, easygoing temperament he had before.

"I had a baby less than a year after we got Yeager, and I’ve got pictures of my infants leaning up against him," Zuendel said.  "I’ve never had any fear of him being around the kids."

"Mackenzie is my 8-year-old, and she was a little toddler when we got him. She and he have a very strong bond," Zuendel continued. "They share food, kisses … for the longest time, she wouldn’t even go to sleep unless Yeager was in her bed with her."

A toddler in pajamas lays up against a black dog curled up on a dog bed. Both appear to be sleeping.
Sgt. Yeager
Sgt. Yeager takes a nap with Simon Tupper on a dog bed at the family’s home.
Photo By: Caroline Zuendel/Sgt. Yeager Facebook page
VIRIN: 200110-O-ZZ999-260

Only rarely does the black Lab show signs of possible combat-related stress.

"He doesn’t have aggression, but he does have these dreams that seem really intense," Zuendel said. "He seems grateful when we wake him up and just reassure him that we’re here, and everything’s OK."

When Sgt. Yeager does need help, he gets it from Project K-9 Hero, a nonprofit that assists military working dogs and police K-9s with medical costs, food and other services. Yeager is now an ambassador for the group, and that’s how he got nominated for the Hero Dog Awards.

The awards, which will be broadcast on the Hallmark Channel on Oct. 21, come a few weeks after Sgt. Yeager was one of four military working dogs honored with the K-9 Medal of Courage in Washington.

"I had no idea what this was going to turn into," said Zuendel at the K-9 medal Capitol Hill event. "It’s quite a bit more than I anticipated, but we’re enjoying it. It’s exciting"”

Good luck in this weekend’s competition, Sgt. Yeager!

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