SCOTT AIR FORCE BASE, Ill. – Outside the Military Working Dogs kennel at Scott Air Force Base, the serene moments are punctured by the barking of dogs. As if they knew it was a somber occasion, silence overtakes the yard as a decoration citation is read. Where there were once eight, there are now seven.
MWD XXue X322 passed away from complications of liver cancer on Sept. 14, 2021, and was honored during a memorial ceremony on October 8, 2021.
“They don't tell you about the hard parts when you go K-9,” said Staff Sgt. Carmen Pontello, 375th Security Forces Squadron kennel master. “They tell you you're going to get bit; you're going to fall down; you're going to get hurt -- but, they don't tell you you’re going to lose your best friend.”
It is undeniable that interactions between humans and K-9s are unique. MWD XXue, aka ‘Mama XXue,’ and her handler, Staff Sgt. Gage Hyer, 375th SFS MWD handler, had an initial meeting that would end most friendships, but seemed to bond them together for the rest of their lives.
“My first encounter with XXue was one I will never forget,” said Hyer.
While serving as a decoy during bite work training, Hyer found out that XXue had an obsession with hands.
“There was blood everywhere,” he said, chuckling, as he ran a finger over the scar that remains. “She stuck her canine right through my pinky. It was the very next week I was told she was going to be my partner.”
Initial pairings for K-9 and their handlers is something that takes as long as it takes. It can be something that is discussed over a series of weeks, or, in the case of Hyer and XXue, something the kennel master saw at first glance. When looking to pair a team, kennel masters look at the experience and personality of the dog, as well as the handler. They try to make them blend, explained Pontello.
“These dogs mean everything to us,” said Pontello. “We spend every day with these dogs, multiple hours a day of blood, sweat and tears just pouring into these dogs. They become our partners. They become that special person.”
XXue was an advanced dog who knew her job and knew it very well. Hyer, with more experience than other handlers, had been “on leash” for less than two years before he gained her as a partner. About a year and a half into their pairing, and after a lot of hard work, was when things really started to click for the team.
“It got really close to that point where I could tell what she was thinking,” said Hyer. “I could see her thought process happen. I would tell her, ‘I know what you're thinking and don't even think about it.’ Even though she didn't speak a lick of English, I knew what she was doing and you could just see the facial expression change as if she was thinking, ‘dang.’ It was the most fun I've ever had.”
Throughout their two and a half years together, they accomplished 19 secret service missions supporting the president and vice-president as well as countless hours of training and patrolling. But, according to Hyer, her absolute favorite thing were the breaks at the end of the day in their hotel room while they were on mission where she could be the laziest dog she could, Hyer recalled, fondly.
“XXue would suck on the hotel comforter,” chuckled Hyer. “Every time we went on missions -- that trumped everything. She would jump on the bed, ball up the comforter on the bedsheets and shove as much of it as she could in her mouth.”
“For hours, she would sit there and just suck on it,” He continued, his smile growing larger. “I learned quickly after the first time that if we didn't have two beds that she only gets a certain part of the blanket, because then I have to share the other half of the bed. I'm like ‘no, it's gross and wet and disgusting.’ I had to tell her to ‘stick to that side,’ but she was amazing.”
While her main job was explosive detection, she had the reputation of ‘it’s not if, but when, she was going to get you,’ XXue was known around the kennel as being playful and who loved to be around all of the handlers, mouthing when things were not going her way; this earned her the title of ‘Mama XXue.’
“She was such a baby,” said Pontello. “When we were just hanging out at the kennel, we would bring Mama XXue in. She would just hang out and sit on her own special chair. She was like our mascot.”
The sudden loss of Mama Xxue was something that sent ripples of sadness throughout the entire 375th SFS, but hit no one harder than Hyer.
Noticeably stifled with grief, Hyer began to stammer and wipe tears from his eyes while recalling the tragic event of that day. Pontello, noticing his wingman’s inability to speak, extends an arm and puts his hand on Hyer’s shoulder.
During feeding time, the handlers noticed XXue was not acting quite like herself. Upon arrival at the Vet Clinic, surgery quickly revealed a ruptured mass causing XXue to bleed internally. With great difficulty, and XXue’s best interest in mind, the hard decision was made to end XXue’s suffering.
At the time of XXue’s passing, her family was by her side, saying goodbye, and remembering XXue as they knew her, Pontello stated.
“My favorite times of our time together was seeing her every chance that I could,” said Hyer. “She made coming into work not work at all. Everyone who knew XXue will never forget her. I know she’s in a better place, thriving and doing what she loved best.”
As stated in Guardians of the Night, which was read at her memorial, “...When our time together is done, and you move on in the world, remember me with kindness and that nothing passed among us undetected. If we shall meet again on another street, I will gladly take up your fight. I am a Police Working Dog and together, we are the guardians of the night.”
As Hyer picked up the pieces from the loss felt by the entire 375th SFS, he took home with him: a flag folded by the Scott Honor Guard, XXue’s Air Force Achievement Medal, and the ashes of his partner – his companion – his best friend.