More than a ‘tool’

MOUNTAIN HOME AIR FORCE BASE, Idaho -- Military working dog: a type of dog that learns and performs various tasks such as scouting, guarding and contraband detection. These dogs have been used for thousands of years and have proven invaluable in current operations in Southwest Asia.

Logisticians and planners may see them as numbers on a deployment document. For others, who have been on the receiving end, may only see them as an 80-pound ball of anger and aggression. For the 366th Security Forces Squadron dog handlers here, the bond reaches much deeper than the dogs just being, for lack of a better word, a tool. 

“We don’t consider them dogs, they are regular service members,” said Tech. Sgt. Robert Prim, 366th Security Forces Squadron NCO in charge of the military working dog section. “The handlers treat them all as equals, if not better.” 

This was no different with a Belgian Malinois named Vvass. 

Prim first met Vvass while working as an instructor at Joint Base San Antonio, Texas.

“I knew who Vvass was, I knew his demeanor a little bit,” Prim said. “I was very excited when I got here and got to see him again.”

The first day Prim was reunited with Vvass would be a memorable one. Prim was just getting settled into his office when Vvass spotted a chew toy on Prim’s desk and decided it was something he wanted. 

“He jumped up on my desk and took it, and then laid in my lap and wanted me to rub his belly while he chewed on it,” Prim said. 

Prim yelled at him and pushed him off of his lap. Vvass thought it was all fun and games at that point.

“He jumped right back up and he licked me,” Prim said. “Right then and there I knew he was my buddy.”

These shenanigans would be how Vvass earned his name as the “goofy dog.” Prim continued on by telling stories of Vvass catching handlers off guard while they were eating, and how he would try to sneak a little snack off their plates. He recounted other times when Vvass would be finished eating and would throw his bowl over the fence to make the handlers walk around to get it. 

“Vvass was a special type of dog that could weasel his way into your heart, even when he pissed you off,” said Staff Sgt. Lucas Medelez, 366th Security Forces Squadron military working dog handler.

Although there are countless stories of Vvass being goofy, he was still a hard worker, even if he might have needed a kick start.  

Medelez described him as “lazy, but if you motivated him enough, or if you were motivated enough, he would work as hard as he could.”

He explained that he had to learn to put his trust in other people, and when he became a dog handler it was even more difficult putting trust in something that wasn’t human. Medelez tried getting certified with two other dogs before he began training Vvass, but failed. 

Dog handling didn’t come easy for Medelez. He explained that he had to work twice as hard to even be mediocre, but Vvass was there to help get Medelez on the right track.

“Vvass helped me to relax and be more confident in myself, and to trust myself and to trust the dog as well,” Medelez said. “With Vvass, he just made it easy for me… he made it to where I loved my job.”

For Medelez, Vvass ultimately laid the groundwork to help him develop into the handler he is today and successfully getting certified with not just Vvass, but his current dog Onor. 

After working with Vvass for a short period of time, Medelez was scheduled for his first mission as a dog handler. 

It was in San Francisco, he said he didn’t know what to expect and was nervous, but Vvass was there to relieve the stress upon arrival to the hotel.

“I took his leash off, he jumped right into the bed and started rolling around and then just laid there on his back with his paws up in the air,” Medelez recollected. “With him being goofy it kinda brightened up the rest of trip, I wasn’t as nervous, because I could trust my dog.”

Medelez explained that Vvass was a people pleaser. He loved to play, but when it came to work he meant business and always wanted to help get the job done even if it was something difficult.

“[Vvass] was a scaredy cat, a big scaredy cat,” Medelez said with a laugh. “Anytime we would go out and he was kind of afraid to do something he somehow managed to muster up gusto to be able to get through that specific problem he was facing.”

During his tenure at Mountain Home Vvass went on two deployments and a number of missions. 

On his second deployment, Vvass would be by a different handler’s side, Staff Sgt. Christopher Hotine. 

While attending pre deployment training Vvass received the ‘top-dog award.’ This success continued on through the deployment, while on patrols Vvass found three separate bomb components.

Three months in to his deployment, Hotine began noticing a change in Vvass’ normal behavior.

“He began missing meals,” Hotine said.

Hotine first thought we was depressed, because they had been working every day in the heat so he began taking him out to play and relax on their time off. 

But, the missed meals continued until he completely stopped eating and lost 11 pounds. Hotine took him to the vet, where he found out Vvass had low protein levels.

“He began taking meds, protein supplements, and he began getting better,” Hotine said. “Once he was taken off the meds his health declined.”

Once it was realized that the problem was more than just low protein, they were on the next flight to a German dog center where they would find that Vvass had a rare cancer, all the doctors knew was it was fast growing and aggressive. 

“The doctor told me he probably had this since birth honestly, but these dogs have such a high drive they work no matter what,” Hotine said. “He probably pushed through the pain for so long that it finally became too much for him and he just couldn’t fight it anymore.”

Confusion set in for Hotine, the cancer had taken his seemingly healthy partner to his deathbed in only three weeks.

Prim received a phone call from the deployed location that Vvass wasn’t doing well and wouldn’t make it home.

Regardless of race, gender or even breed, when a member of the unit passes, it takes a toll on those who worked with them day after day. 

“It hit pretty hard because he was the first dog I got certified on and it was even hard to let him go the first time,” Medelez said.

The shock and sadness would be felt across base with those who had an interaction with Vvass. 

“Every handler he was put on loved him, whether that be handlers or other people who came and watched him” Medelez said. “He was that sunshine or silver lining on the edge of a cloud.”

Many saw him as the goofy dog of the squad, his handlers saw him as an essential part of the Gunfighter military work dog team. For this reason, Prim is trying to present him with one last gift, the Air Force Achievement Medal.

“They are much more than tools, they aren’t pets,” Prim said. “They are our partners… our best friends.”

On a Thursday in August members around Mountain Home AFB gathered in somber silence at the chapel to pay tribute to this ‘silver lining on the edge of a cloud,’ military working dog Vvass. Kind words were spoken and tissues passed amongst those in attendance. 

When roll call began there was one not in attendance.

Reality set in.

“I don’t know how many people have went through this experience and have lost their partner, but it definitely makes me more appreciative of the process,” Hotine said. “It’s just going to make me appreciate the bond 10 fold, just knowing that ‘hey this doesn’t last forever.’”