Military working dog passes, another to retire on Maxwell

MAXWELL AIR FORCE BASE, Ala -- What would have been a joint retirement ceremony for two of the 42nd Air Base Wing’s military working dogs, will now include one retirement and one memorial. 

MWD Sam will trade his spot in the 42nd Security Forces Squadron kennel for the home life after serving three years at Maxwell Air Force Base. Staff Sgt. Brandon Bixby, Sam’s handler, has adopted the 8-year-old Dutch sheppard. Sam’s retirement ceremony, set for Aug. 11, will include a memorial for a working dog that didn’t make it to retirement age. 

Elza, a nine-and-a-half-year-old K-9 veteran died earlier this month after veterinarians discovered cancer in one of her eyes. Elza had served in Iraq, along with several years at Maxwell/Gunter. 

“We were about to deploy when we discovered her blindness,” said Senior Airman Clinton Gregory, Elza’s handler and partner.  “We thought she had slight vision loss, but we never thought it would be anything that bad. If we threw a ball, she’d miss it now and again, but it wasn’t too out of the ordinary. She was always that goofy, so we just thought she was just acting out,” he said. 

It was during her pre-deployment examination in May at the Maxwell Veterinarian Clinic that doctors there found vision loss and began to suspect cancer in her left eye. Gregory took Elza to the vet clinic at Auburn University where doctors there decided to remove Elza’s left eye.  Later lab results confirmed the cancer diagnosis, but veterinarians there hoped they had removed all traces along with her eye and she was expected to make a full recovery. 

Elza was already in the lengthy process of retiring, so she lived the easy life back at the kennel. Gregory's partner spent June recovering, exercising and playing.  

In early July, however, it became apparent to Gregory that Elza wasn’t recovering as she should. “The last three days she was alive I was with her, I may have had two hours of sleep,” he said. 

After a long stint of caring for Elza around the clock at the Maxwell MWD kennel, Gregory was relieved and went home. Only a half hour later he received a call and was notified she was deteriorating quickly. He returned and took Elza back to Ft. Benning, Georgia, where Veterinarians there confirmed the cancer had spread to Elza’s brain. The decision was made there and then to put her down.  Gregory called back to the Maxwell kennel to give Kennel Master Staff Sgt. Garrett Watson and fellow handlers Bixby and Staff Sgt. David Wells the news. 

“I told them ‘Ya’ll need to get up here quick,’” Gregory said. “ … and I stalled (the vetrenarians from euthanizing Elza). I stalled as much as I could so they could get there and say their goodbyes.” 

Bixby, Wells and Watson made it. They and Gregory said their goodbyes, and then Elza was gone.

“It was rough – rough and completely unexpected,” Gregory said of the day he lost Elza, visibly holding back emotion. “You don’t realize the bond you get with these dogs. Our job is to spend time and bond with these dogs letting them know, ‘hey, I’m your dad,’ or ‘I’m your mom and I’ll take care of you. I’m here for you and you’re here for me and we’ve got each other’s back.’ She was such a sweetheart, which makes it even harder.”

Elza had made her bond with Gregory, and her previous partner, Wells, but was loved throughout the MWD community on Maxwell. 

“Seeing not only a partner, but a friend, go down is the hardest pill to swallow,” said Otten. “We form a bond and connection with our dogs that couldn't be matched on any other level. Everyone's thought is that there is a small piece of all of us that is now gone.”

Gregory was looking forward to adopting Elza, but instead he’ll be bringing home half the cremated remains of his partner, while Wells, who is currently deployed, will receive the other half. What they do with Elza’s ashes is at their discretion. Gregory plans on keeping his.

The joint retirement ceremony/memorial for Sam and Elza is scheduled for Aug. 11, 8:30 a.m. at the MWD facility on the western side of the intersection of Mitchell St. and E. Selfridge St. on Maxwell, and is open to anyone with base access. Organizers ask that attendees be in place by 8:15.