Miley is a big, happy, yellow Labrador retriever who can clear a coffee table with an enthusiastic wag of her tail. She also has saved an untold number of lives during three deployments as a military drug and explosives detection canine.
Charlie R., a Cordes Junction Army veteran who asked that his last name not be used, was serving as a dog handler in the 10th Mountain Division at Fort Drum, New York when he met the tiny Labrador pup and knew he wanted to work with her. Four years later, Miley is retired and has come to live with Charlie for the rest of her life.
Miley came to Fort Drum with a group of potential military dogs. She was the only lab among a Doberman and four Belgian Malinois pups.
Having been raised with labs, Charlie knew he wanted this dog if she passed the required testing, in which handlers look for the animal’s prey drive, an instinct so strong that the dog will pass up food for a chance to play. Once trainers establish that natural instinct, the detection training becomes a game, with their favorite toy as a reward.
After Miley completed her training, she deployed twice with Charlie to Afghanistan, and once with another handler to Kosovo. Her easygoing nature belies her abilities. She is credited with detecting 17 IEDs, or improvised explosive devices, while patrolling ahead of convoys with Charlie. Every day, he literally put his life in the big dog’s hands.
He is careful to give the credit to Miley, and to not make light of her job.
“I couldn’t tell you how many people she saved, just by detecting IEDs in front of the convoy. Just with me she’s made some good busts in Afghanistan of opiates and cocaine. The biggest IED she found was 800 pounds,” he said.
Just for perspective, that amount of explosives would destroy most armored vehicles and Humvees, he said.
When she alerted to the explosives, Miley would sit quietly. Charlie then flagged the area and waited for personnel to remove or detonate the IEDs.
Charlie retired after serving in Afghanistan, Germany, and Somalia, among others, but because each military dog has to serve a certain amount of time, he had to leave Miley behind in El Paso, Texas.
“She stayed there with the military MP unit, working drugs at the gate,” Charlie said, adding that she later was deployed to Kosovo with her new handler.
He already had lost another dog in 1994, a Malinois that was killed during battle in Somalia. Walking away and leaving Miley to her new handler was one of the hardest things he’d ever done, he said.
“You become closer to (the dog) than your comrades. I did everything I could to get her, it was so important to me. A lot of dogs coming out are put down because people are afraid to adopt them,” he said.
More organizations now are working to find homes for retired military dogs, he said, so the situation is better, but many still do not find permanent homes.
When Charlie retired, he asked for Miley, and kept in touch with both her handler and the kennel master at Fort Drum. He even returned to Fort Bliss in Texas to visit Miley this past year.
Just this past month, Charlie got the call he was waiting for.
“The kennel master called me and said, ‘She’s yours if you want her,'” he said.
A private donor had given money to pay for reuniting military dogs with their handlers, so Miley’s journey was paid for. Shortly after, Charlie eagerly traveled to Sky Harbor to meet his dog’s flight.
“I left here at 5 a.m. to go pick her up at air freight. I was antsy. I didn’t know if she had been hurt or not, I had no information,” he said.
Miley was in great condition, and Charlie’s eyes filled with tears as he described their reunion.
“As soon as I saw her,” he said, “I broke down. Her tail was going a million miles an hour.”
The duo stopped at Costco on the way home for some dog food and toys, and then Miley came home for good.
“She’s never going anywhere again. She’s done too much,” Charlie said.
Miley never was trained as a bite or attack dog, Charlie said. She has been trained to not be friendly with other dogs, because dogs in Afghanistan and other deployment areas can be very aggressive and carry diseases. When she is around other dogs, Miley wears a muzzle. She’s very well behaved and friendly to people.
She is adjusting well to her new life, although it will take time for her to realize that she’s not on the job. When she’s outside, she is constantly alert, and knows every second where Charlie is.
Miley is catching on to her “dog’s life,” though, carrying her pig’s ear and inviting a scratch and a game of catch.
Most people today wouldn’t recognize the pretty, eager Miley as a highly trained military soldier. And that’s just fine with Charlie.
“She’s just going to be a lab now,” he said.