By Katie Lange
Niko stood proud as America’s highest honor for valor and service was placed around his neck. He might have also been a little confused by all the applause and attention he was getting, but he didn’t mind it – that or the many head rubs he got afterward.
If you weren’t sure, Niko is a dog – a retired military working dog, to be exact. And on the day before the 18th anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, he and three other four-legged friends who helped fight our nation’s longest war were honored as recipients of the K-9 Medal of Courage.
Military leaders and several members of Congress took part in the Capitol Hill ceremony that gave recognition to the often-overlooked but invaluable contributions of our military working dogs. This year’s recipients were chosen from dozens of candidates. Here are the four who were celebrated this week.
Troll, a 12-year-old Dutch shepherd, lives in El Paso, Texas, with his former Air Force handler, Staff Sgt. Rob Wilson. Troll is credited with conducting 89 combat missions over 1,240 hours during a 2012 deployment to Afghanistan in which he supported Army and Special Operations units.
During one route-clearing mission, Troll found three improvised explosive devices, saving the lives of 65 coalition forces members. In a raid on an insurgent compound during that mission, Troll found more buried IEDs, as well as a hidden tunnel filled with deadly weapons and two high-value targets. When the compound came under fire, Troll and Wilson helped eliminate the insurgent threat and made way for the evacuation of a critically injured Afghan soldier.
Sgt. Yeager lives the easy life in Cary, North Carolina, now, but this 13-year-old black Lab has been through a lot. Sgt. Yeager did three combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan and is credited with finding dozens of explosive devices during more than 100 route-clearing patrols. On April 12, 2012, Sgt. Yeager was injured in an explosion as he and his handler, Lance Cpl. Abraham Tarwoe, tried to protect their fellow Marines in Afghanistan’s Helmand province. Sgt. Yeager suffered shrapnel wounds that made him lose part of his ear. Tarwoe, who many said had an unbreakable bond with Sgt. Yeager, did not survive.
Sgt. Yeager was given the Purple Heart and returned to the United States, where he retired once he was well again. Unfortunately, Tarwoe’s widow could not take him in, so he was adopted by another military family, who said he’s joyful and sweet, despite what he’s been through. Sgt. Yeager is an ambassador for the Project K-9 Hero Foundation. He’s also one of seven finalists for the Hero Dog Awards, which will be presented in Los Angeles in October.
Emmie, a 12-year-old black Lab, did three combat tours in Afghanistan with the Marine Corps, working nonstop off leash while searching roadways for IEDs.
She was known to be highly driven, a trait that brought her to the nation’s capital in 2012. She was certified as a Pentagon Police explosive detector dog and spent the next five years searching hundreds of vehicles, buildings and open areas. She conducted security sweeps for high-ranking dignitaries and took part in demonstrations at schools and federal facilities. She was even interviewed on CNN once!
Emmie retired in 2018, but despite that, she hasn’t stopped working, according to her adopted dad, Eric Harris. He said she now likes to help his autistic son at their Mechanicsville, Maryland, home, something she started doing all on her own.
Niko is a 10-year-old Dutch shepherd with a lot of spirit and a long tongue. From 2012 to 2016, he worked all over Afghanistan protecting foreign and U.S. dignitaries and embassy personnel, and even served with the security details of visiting presidents and secretaries of state.
He conducted more than 600 missions for the State Department in support of the Defense Department, the CIA, the U.S. Agency for International Development and various NATO alliances. He cleared routes and swept homes for bombs prior to high-level meetings, and did endless searches of vehicles as they came into camp. Sometimes he even got to fly in a helicopter!
When Niko wasn’t working, he was boosting the morale of the service members stationed with him. You could often find him on the treadmill, pushing his teammates at the gym. Niko lived in Afghanistan for five years without a vacation before retirement. Now, he calls Willow, Alaska, home, running free across the frontier for the next chapter of his life.
Congrats to all four K-9s for their devotion and sacrifices!
The K-9 Medal of Courage was presented by philanthropist and veterans advocate Lois Pope, as well as American Humane, which has worked with the U.S. military for more than a century.
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