An adoption event of retired bomb-sniffing dogs held two years ago in Southern Pines has ignited into a fierce finger-pointing battle between the Army, several former animal handlers and the local company that trained the animals for the military.
A weekend article in The New York Post detailed the complex policies that dictate how retired military working dogs are placed for adoption and disposed of. Many of the animals deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan and were involved in battlefield situations.
The article detailed former handlers’ complaints that the military and the animal-training company, K2 Solutions of Southern Pines, separated the animals from their handlers and then gave away or sold the animals to private parties without offering them first to their former partners.
Several soldiers interviewed for the article say they were mislead or misdirected in their efforts to be reunited with their former canine partners.
K2 founder and chief executive officer Lane Kjellsen, interviewed briefly on Tuesday, said the truth is complicated and rebuffed the Post article, noting the author has a history of publishing inflammatory articles.
“She has grabbed a subject that people are passionate about, and have every right to be,” Kjellsen said. “But she has distorted it, taken things out of context and taken it to levels that are less than half truths.
“For me to properly refute all of the incorrect information would take hours of time,” Kjellsen said. “At the same time there is enough shred of truth to what she has written that she has invoked passion and used that passion for people to misplace their anger. It is disheartening. The truth is complicated and it doesn’t work in sound bites or in short paragraphs.”
Indeed, the issue is complex and infused with varying degrees of doing right by veterans who served in war zones; respecting the animals’ skills and rights; and observing the sensitivities around the handlers’ and dogs’ complicated symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.
The problem with finding new homes for these dogs begins with the most basic of questions: Who had ownership and, therefore, responsibility for the adoption event?
K2 and a Facebook organization dedicated to matching dogs with their former handlers both agree on this point: All dogs in the TEDD [Tactical Explosion Detection Dog] program belonged to the Army. The adoptions in February and March 2014, though held on K2 property, were authorized and overseen by a staff member from the Army’s Office of the Provost Marshal General.
A post on K2’s official Facebook page reads, in part, “K2 Solutions is very proud of the support that we provided to the U.S. Army’s TEDD program during the exactly one year that we were contracted to perform it. The contract held between K2 and DPMS for the TEDD program ended on February 10, 2014.
“K2 continued to provide heath and welfare to these dogs at our own expense while DPMS and the U.S. Army re-homed the MWDs that they owned. K2 did not coordinate the adoptions and re-homing of the dogs. In reference to the article in the NY Post, Ms. Callahan’s assumption that K2 played a bigger role is not accurate. Our contract was over and our hands were legally tied from participating in any programatic, adoption or dispositions decisions or actions.”
Robby’s Law, first formalized by Congress in 2000 as Title 10-Armed Forces 2583, was signed in an effort to eliminate these types of situations. Named in honor of a retired K-9 that was euthanized at the same time his former handler was attempting to adopt him, the law stipulates that adoptable retired working dogs be made available — in descending priority order — to law enforcement agencies, then to their former handlers, and finally to the general public on a first-come first-served basis. In addition, a new law included in the 2016 Defense Department budget bill directs the military to bring all retiring dogs back stateside.
Overseas development of working dogs and training of handlers is managed by Lackland Air Force Base’s 341st Training Squadron. K2 Solutions is a private contractor hired by the military to train dogs and handlers for operations. The company also provides research and development, training and intelligence for Special Operations, logistics for explosive sales, supply chain management and other consulting services.
Based in Southern Pines, K2 operates a large canine training facility in Jackson Springs, where dogs are trained for domestic law enforcement units and military uses, in addition to a test program to provide emotional support dogs for military veterans. In recent years, K2 held large government contracts to provide TEDD and the Marine Corps IDD [Improvised Explosive Device Detector Dog] program.
A complicating factor, at least according to K2 and the Army, is the difficulty of matching former handlers to the dogs once they are retired from service. Each dog has a deployment record that includes the names of each handler it worked with. But, interestingly, the adoption paperwork found on a website for the 341st Training Squadron does not include a place where a particular dog’s name or serial number can be requested.
On February 10, 2014, the first of two adoption events were held on K2 property in Southern Pines. Word that bomb-sniffing dogs would be available.
Law enforcement officers were given first dibs, and over 100 dogs were adopted that day, including six taken by a Taylortown police officer. Of those, one ended up the subject of a nasty custody battle that played out last fall in the national media. Alex Reimer and “Howard,” a white and tan pit bull, had served together overseas but were separated after their tour was complete.
Reimer eventually tracked Howard to Fayetteville where he was photographed tied to a tree in the yard of Deon Fuller, a former Taylortown officer then working for the Hoke County Sheriff’s Department. Reimer felt the dog looked malnourished and was being mistreated. He attempted to adopt the dog from Fuller and initiated a social media campaign in his efforts to reclaim the dog. In October, Fuller was relieved of his law enforcement duties — in his opinion, a direct consequence of the custody battle — and despite his belief that the dog was treated well and legally adopted, the following month he returned Howard to Reimer.
This incident is one of several recent stories that highlight the emotional nature of re-homing retired working dogs. Howard’s story also spurred interest in matching more former handlers with their TEDD dogs.
A resident of Indiana, Betsy Hampton, created the “Justice for TEDD Handlers” Facebook page after reading about Reimer and his search for his dog. She was moved by his story because her own dogs were adopted from the same animal shelter where Howard was first pulled from prior to his K-9 training.
“While we did contribute to the NY Post article, we do not agree with the reporter's slant toward K2's part in it,” said Hampton. “We were excited that the story was going to be told so that more dogs could be located. The TEDD dogs were owned by the Army. The Office of the Provost Marshal General ran the adoptions and called the shots. K2 employees were not in charge of the adoptions and had no say in what was happening.”
Hampton manages traffic on the page with the assistance of volunteers from locations across the states and one in Australia. Photographs, stories and information on dogs are shared by former handlers and also adoptive families who are trying to connect the dots — if not the dogs themselves.
She said it was the decision of the Army to give the dogs to anyone who showed up at the K2 adoption without prior application or verification.
“This was not appropriate in our opinion, but this is what happened,” she said.
“Several of us met because of the ‘Bring Howard Home’ campaign and decided to try and locate the five other dogs that were adopted by the Taylortown Police Department. We have been in contact with each of the handlers of these five dogs and our focus remains on finding them. But our page and our mission has grown and now we are trying to match as many TEDD dogs with their former handlers as possible,” Hampton said.
“A lot of these guys are really afraid. They are afraid if their dogs are in the wrong hands with someone who doesn’t know how to handle them, they could be harmed,” Hampton said. “They are retired military working dogs and they could become aggressive. And the not knowing where they are is horrible for them.”
“The Taylortown officer went to the adoption, he told us, under the direction of [former] Police Chief Schirra Johnson. The Army gave the dogs away and they did not pay for them because they were law enforcement. But they didn’t have a plan, or a budget, and no way to kennel them. Within a week, the dogs were again given away.”
Taylortown Mayor Ulysses Barrett said the town "never sanctioned acquiring any police dogs."
"At that time, Johnson was the police chief and Fuller was an officer. They were told that we do not need these dogs. The adoption was not to the town but was a personal thing with them."
Panter is another of the six dogs adopted by the [former] Taylortown police officer, that later vanished. His first handler, Devin Cooper, is actively seeking any information on the whereabouts of his former partner.
“We trained together, we went to Afghanistan together. He is my buddy,” Cooper said. “If it wasn’t for Panter, I would not be here. He did a good job of finding bombs. Actually, he was one of the best out of all the other dogs.”
Cooper and Panter met in September 2011 and were a team for 18 months. Their extended service included long periods of field work where they were involved in several firefights and then checking vehicles that were entering a German base that was under construction.
“We never had any down time,” he said. “When we finally got home, we were told we would have some down time with our dogs. But as soon as we got off the plane, there was a man waiting there to take our dogs. That was the last time I saw him.”
Cooper said through the Justice for TEDD Handlers page, he was able to communicate with Panter’s next partner. He told him the dog became skittish, showing symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder [PTSD], and was sent home.
“I was never given the opportunity to adopt him. I was never given any paperwork or even information on how to adopt him,” Cooper said. “They don’t even know where he is now or have any documentation.”
K2 CEO Kjellsen is himself the owner of a former Marine dog, according to the Post article.
Former Marine Nick Beckham had been searching for his IDD dog named Lucky for some time before he was tipped off by a K2 worker, according to the NY Post article. The employee told him Lucky was in the possession of Kjellsen. Kjellsen said the dog was adopted properly through regular channels after it was first sold to the Marine Corps and then, only later, retired.
Answers are demanded for many former handlers searching for their dogs, but a more recent adoption event held on K2 property was more successful and, perhaps, indicates a positive change in policy.
In October 2015, K2 assisted in reuniting 12 retired dogs with their former Marine handlers. These dogs represented the final cohort of more than 647 Labrador retrievers that made up the IDD program in Afghanistan.
Cooper said he would love to be reunited with Panter.
“Panter was a soldier. He saved my life and was my buddy,” he said. “I want to know he is with someone who knows how to handle a military working dog. He has some pretty cool, some pretty advanced training. I want to know he is with someone who is treating him right.
“I am not trying to take him from anyone but if they wanted to give him back, I would buy them any German Shepherd they wanted. I would love to have Panter. He will always have a home with me.”