Military handlers often face the heartbreaking reality of parting ways with their K-9 counterparts after enduring an incredible bond through service on the battlefield.
It usually occurs when a handler gets restationed or if a handler or dog goes into retirement.
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It’s a reality that retired U.S. Army Spc. Mike Steponovich and U.S. Air Force Staff Sgt. Wade Alfson knew all too well after being separated from their four-legged warriors, Popeye, and Xxanthe.
However, those bonds are never forgotten. In fact, they’re being rekindled thanks to the efforts of American Humane – a nonprofit dedicated to the safety and well-being of animals. Since 2014, the nonprofit has been working to ensure that military handlers, like Steponovich and Alfson, are reunited with their canine companions once the dogs are officially retired.
To make that happen, the organization tracks down the latest handler for adoption and then covers the cost to bring the dog to its new and rightful owner. American Humane also covers the cost of veterinary care throughout the rest of the dog’s life.
The adoption process isn’t easy. But the hard work pays for that very moment these soldiers set eyes on their former partners again – just like Steponovich and Alfson experienced this past month.
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Steponovich and Popeye, a 7-year-old German shepherd, served together for 18 months in South Korea.
The duo had put in over 2,000 hours doing patrol work together as Popeye was trained for explosive detection and patrol. But after spending countless hours by each other’s sides, Popeye retired early due to a pinched nerve and severe separation anxiety.
For the last four months, they have been apart. That officially changed on May 21 when Steponovich became Popeye’s official owner.
“When I had to leave him it was really emotional,” Steponovich said. “You never know when it’s going to be the last time you’re going to see your dog. For me, I’ve worked with two dogs and when I said goodbye to the other dog, it was hard because I never got to see him again. That was it.”
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Alfson was able to get that same feeling of relief earlier this month when he was reunited with Xxanthe, a 10-year-old Belgian Malinois.
The duo had been separated for over a year.
“Once she was in pretty close proximity, I feel like she knew exactly who I was right away and jumped right toward me, which just feels great, cause there’s always a worry that they’ll forget you, you know?” Alfson said.
Alfson and Xxanthe served together for about 18 months on Mountain Home Air Force Base in Idaho before being deployed to undisclosed locations in the Middle East, where they searched for improvised explosive devices (IEDs).
“You can feel how much she cares about you, but then when it’s time to work she just snaps it on immediately, and then she can snap it off,” Alfson said. “She’s an amazing dog – she’s like a human being.”
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The pair had to part ways after Alfson was restationed to Hawaii.
To date, American Humane has reunited more than 40 pairs to make sure these dogs get the “retirements they deserve.”
“American Humane is thrilled to bring these heroic military dogs home to reunite with their best friends,” American Humane CEO Robin Ganzert said. “Xxanthe and Popeye bravely served our country and we are honored to give them the beautiful retirements they deserve.”