Atos learned quickly, and those who knew him well describe the young Belgian Malinois as affectionate and strong-willed, if maybe a bit stubborn.
Trained as a military working dog on Fort Bragg, Atos was sent to Iraq where he joined a Special Forces Operational Detachment in the field. He was killed in action on Dec. 24, 2007.
In honor of his sacrifice — and in tribute to the thousands of other canine veterans that have served our nation — a K9 Veterans Day event will be held Saturday, March 14, from 12-3 p.m., at Hatchet Brewery in downtown Southern Pines.
Sponsored by Tough Stump Technologies, in partnership with Hexagon U.S. Federal, the goal of the commemorative event is to raise $25,000 for K9s for Warriors, a non-profit organization that provides service dogs to veterans.
“Atos was a teammate and a team member,” said Jarrett Heavenston, a retired combat controller who co-founded Southern Pines-based Tough Stump Technologies with two fellow soldiers in 2016. “These dogs do extraordinary feats of bravery and selflessness, all for a ball. It is so cool that something so simple is their ultimate reward.”
Heavenston said Atos joined his team midway through their deployment, following the loss of the unit’s previous canine, also killed in action.
A lifelong dog lover, Heavenston volunteered to help Atos’ trainer, Randy Roy, when they first arrived in the Middle East. The two men stayed in touch and, today, Roy is the lead trainer and developer of Tough Stump’s drone mapping system.
“Atos was very protective of us, his pack,” Heavenston said, and he’s never forgotten the circumstances of the dog’s death or what could be done differently to prevent his loss.
On that day, the Special Operations detachment was tracking an enemy combatant through a rural area. It was near dusk, and Heavenston was walking side-by-side with Atos’ handler, trying to help navigate the dog toward the scent trail.
“It was very thick, wood brush which made it difficult to move as a cohesive unit. Dogs have a super-human ability with scent, but we didn’t have a good starting position.”
They’d been in the thicket for about 20 minutes. Atos was working off-leash, when he discovered his target. The team was converging when the enemy discharged a bomb, killing himself and Atos, and seriously wounding four American soldiers.
“It was the fact that Atos engaged him first that caused him to react the way he did. We were all in close proximity when the bomb went off, and Atos definitely saved lives,” Heavenston said. “Atos was in there and kept him on the ground, so the ground absorbed much of the blast.”
Roy has Atos’ name tattooed on his arm, alongside the names of six other K9 veterans he trained that were later killed in action.
“I believe the dogs do extraordinary things because they understand they are part of a team. The dog is the only other animal that would rather be with a human than their own kind.”
He Inspires, Still
It’s been more than a dozen years since Atos died protecting his team, but Heavenston said that has not diminished the sense of loss. Recently while working on a drone program for Tough Stump Technologies, Atos once again inspired him.
Tough Stump provides tactical mapping, immersive technology and instruction, tactical networking and instruction and integration services. Within that framework, Heavenston was developing a program for a small GPS tracker that could provide a redundant way to track the devices, should there be a malfunction in the navigation equipment.
“I have always thought back to the night we lost Atos. It occurred to me if we had a way to better track the dog, that narrative could have been a lot different,” Heavenston said. “Instead of the dog having to get in so close, we could have dispatched the enemy by other means.”
Working with the manufacturer of the GPS tag, he developed a software plug-in that allows the user to track multiple targets simultaneously. Heavenston said it was only natural to name the new technology “Atos.”
With K9 Veterans Day approaching, his colleagues at Hexagon U.S. Federal, a geospatial partner that collaborates with Tough Stump on the mapping drone system, suggested the idea of a fundraising event in honor of Atos.
Heavenston said additional event partners and co-sponsors include Hatchet Brewery, Southern Pines CrossFit, Valhalla Tattoos and Combat Buckles. The daylong event includes Atos-inspired workouts at 7 a.m., 8 a.m., 9 a.m. and 10 a.m., at Southern Pines CrossFit; followed by scheduled activities at Hatchet Brewery, including a honorary toast to Atos at noon and a special visit by the Southern Pines Police K9 unit at 1 p.m., The Marketplace food truck and other vendors will be selling customized hats and accessories, plus additional charitable auctions until 3 p.m.
To donate, visit support.k9sforwarriors.org/goto/ATOS or bring checks made out to ‘K9s for Warriors’ to the event on Saturday, March 14, 12-3 p.m.
Hatchet Brewery is located at 490 SW Broad St, Southern Pines, NC 28387