Best Defense

Rebecca’s War Dog of the Week: Good-bye, Benga, You’ll Be Missed

By Rebecca Frankel Best Defense Chief Canine Correspondent Earlier this week, I saw the news that Benga, a military working dog formerly stationed at the U.S. Air Force Academy kennels, had died. One of his former handler’s, Staff Sgt. Phillip Mendoza, posted this on Facebook on Sept. 22: “Had to say good-bye to the last ...

Rebecca Frankel; U.S. Air Force photo/Ray McCoy/"Released"
Rebecca Frankel; U.S. Air Force photo/Ray McCoy/"Released"

By Rebecca Frankel

Best Defense Chief Canine Correspondent

Earlier this week, I saw the news that Benga, a military working dog formerly stationed at the U.S. Air Force Academy kennels, had died.

One of his former handler’s, Staff Sgt. Phillip Mendoza, posted this on Facebook on Sept. 22:

“Had to say good-bye to the last dog I worked before promoting out of K-9 today. Old Benga was a knucklehead for sure but I enjoyed my time with him and he taught me some things as well. He got to enjoy retired life for a little while which he deserved every bit of it. He definitely will be missed and never forgotten. See you on the other side, Benga!”

The German shepherd had a tumor on his stomach and an enlarged spleen. Given his age — Benga was nine years old — and the high risk of complications during surgery, the veterinarians at Fort Carson decided to put him down. Mendoza had been partnered with Benga for a year, just before Benga retired to life as a house dog. Benga was, Mendoza says, a “handful,” but in 2013 they won the USAFA Iron Dog Competition. “My boy got me 1st Place,” he wrote in a note earlier today.

This was a dog with an incredible drive to work, says Sgt. Timothy Bailey, who was the head trainer at the U.S. Air Force Academy kennels while Benga was there. “He went on two deployments and was usually the dog we used for deployments because his [obedience], patrol, and detection was great.” Benga also loved his kong — “a lot.” So much so, Bailey remembers, “that while at deployment training with his [then-]handler Chuck Dalton, Benga got his kong stuck in mouth.”

When I went to visit the kennels in Colorado Springs for a week in December 2011, I got to spend some time with Benga. He had banged his ear and needed stitches — apparently something he did on the regular. I went with Bailey and Benga to the vet at Fort Carson the day he was scheduled to have his stitches removed. 

 

The vets had said Benga should wear a bandage around his ear to keep the stitches from getting infected, which actually meant the bandage had to wrap around the dog’s entire head, folding down his ears and giving him the look of a big, furry turtle. Not only was it uncomfortable for him, but rather undignified looking and so the handlers at the kennel hadn’t been making him wear it. (The stitches healed just fine and as they were meant to.) In the office Benga was calm and sweet, though he had the familiar, nervous side-glancing eyes of a dog who knew he was at the vet. He was happy for the company and let me scratch his head while we waited. (The photo above is from our trip home. Note how not just one, but both ears droop.)

Benga, it turns out, was a frequent guest at the vet. And the ear injury (the third on that same ear by the time I was there) was just one of many others. He was, as Chris Jakubin, the Academy’s kennel master during Benga’s career, told me via text this morning, always suffering from one injury or another. Though “what the injury or surgery was he never ever settled down” and it never kept him from his work — or from being a happy dog.

The most memorable of Benga’s injuries Jakubin says happened one day during a training session.

“After locating a training aid in a desk… I tossed a ball overhead. The ball hit the top edge of the desk and went straight up in the air. As the ball was coming down, the ball and Benga’s front canine met at the same exact time at the same top edge of the desk.” 

Unfortunately, Benga’s top right canine hit the desk’s edge with such force his tooth shattered into dust. But, Jakubin says, “This didn’t deter Benga as he commenced to chase the ball as it rolled in the office. Shattered tooth and bleeding mouth Benga seemed to be pleased just having the ball in his mouth.”

You’ll be missed, Benga. RIP.

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at ricksblogcomment@gmail.com.

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