Sgt. Yeager Is Finalist at Hero Dog Awards
By Katie Lange
Sgt. Yeager is living his best life – hanging with his family, playing with his human siblings and giving love in return for some snuggles, just like any K-9 combat veteran deserves.
“He’s a lover,” said Caroline Zuendel, the 13-year-old Labrador retriever’s adoptive mom. “He’s been a source of joy in our lives.”
But the earlier days of Sgt. Yeager’s life weren’t nearly that simple. He’s seen things that most people might never get over.
“We didn’t know his story until we got him,” Zuendel said.
Wounds of War
Sgt. Yeager spent years as a Marine Corps explosive detection dog. He did three combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, finding dozens of bombs during routine bomb-clearing patrols.
In July 2011, he was paired with Lance Cpl. Abraham Tarwoe, who had come to the U.S. when he was 12 to flee the violence of his home country, Liberia. He had joined the Marine Corps in 2009 as a way of giving back to the country that gave him a new start.
Fellow Marines said Tarwoe and Yeager had an unbreakable bond, which made the events of April 12, 2012, all the more devastating. During a patrol in Afghanistan’s Helmand province, a roadside bomb went off. Tarwoe was killed; Sgt. Yeager lost part of an ear and suffered shrapnel wounds.
Tarwoe was buried with full military honors in Liberia – the first time he’d returned home since fleeing as a child. Sgt. Yeager went back to the U.S. to recover; when he was stable again, he retired.
Tarwoe’s wife was taking care of the couple’s infant son and couldn’t adopt her husband’s four-legged work partner, but another Marine Corps family could. So, a few months after the explosion, Sgt. Yeager headed to his new home in Cary, North Carolina, where he’s been enjoying retirement ever since.
This weekend, Sgt. Yeager and Zuendel will be in Los Angeles where the Purple Heart recipient will be honored at this year’s 2019 American Humane Hero Dog Awards, a nationwide competition that recognizes extraordinary dogs. Sgt. Yeager has already received American Humane’s award for military dog of the year. Now, he’s one of seven finalists for the grand prize — American Hero Dog.
There’ll be a red carpet at the event, celebrity presenters and everything – the whole nine yards. But Zuendel said she’s most looking forward to telling Tarwoe’s story.
“I really love Lance Cpl. Tarwoe’s story,” Zuendel said. “[Tarwoe’s] parents had pooled their money to send him to America from Liberia in wartime, so if anyone understood the freedoms we have, it would be Tarwoe.”
Moving Forward Together
It’s been seven years since the explosion, and while some of Sgt. Yeager’s scars are still visible, he still displays the same calm, easy-going temperament he had before.
“I had a baby less than a year after we got Yeager, and I’ve got pictures of my infants leaning up against him,” Zuendel said. “I’ve never had any fear of him being around the kids.”
“Mackenzie is my 8-year-old, and she was a little toddler when we got him. She and he have a very strong bond,” Zuendel continued. “They share food, kisses … for the longest time, she wouldn’t even go to sleep unless Yeager was in her bed with her.”
Only rarely does the black Lab show signs of possible combat-related stress.
“He doesn’t have aggression, but he does have these dreams that seem really intense,” Zuendel said. “He seems grateful when we wake him up and just reassure him that we’re here, and everything’s OK.”
When Sgt. Yeager does need help, he gets it from Project K-9 Hero, a nonprofit that assists military working dogs and police K-9s with medical costs, food and other services. Yeager is now an ambassador for the group, and that’s how he got nominated for the Hero Dog Awards.
The awards, which will be broadcast on the Hallmark Channel on Oct. 21, come a few weeks after Sgt. Yeager was one of four military working dogs honored with the K-9 Medal of Courage in Washington.
“I had no idea what this was going to turn into,” said Zuendel at the K-9 medal Capitol Hill event. “It’s quite a bit more than I anticipated, but we’re enjoying it. It’s exciting.”
Good luck in this weekend’s competition, Sgt. Yeager!