Staff Sgt. Angela Lowe hadn’t seen her former military canine, Szultan, in four years when she received a message from his current handler asking if she would be interested in taking him in once he retired.
“For some of these dogs, if they’re dog-aggressive or food-aggressive, it makes it difficult, because some people can’t take that home,” said Lowe. “And I was a little concerned that he would get euthanized.”
A unique bond
As Szultan’s first handler, Lowe had a special relationship with the canine. He started out very temperamental, wanting to do tasks his own way and even leaving people bruised. Training him for service required a tremendous amount of work.
“I did make a deal with Szultan. I was like, ‘Hey, look, man. I know you’re grumpy. I need you to not bite me. Please. I’ll respect you. You respect me. And we will figure this out together,’” said Lowe. “After we did that, we started meshing. I was super proud of him. I absolutely could trust him one hundred percent.”
Unfortunately, due to the physical demands of training military dogs, Lowe’s body endured a lot of stress. She started to have problems with her hands and would often drop the dogs’ leashes. After undergoing two spine surgeries, Lowe was forced to medically retire from the Air Force.
“Leaving Szultan was really hard for me. You have your pets at home, and of course you love them, but it’s different,” she said. “It’s indescribable how bonded you are to your dog. I don’t think I’ll ever have a love for a career like I did with working dogs.”
After retiring from the military, Lowe thought about Szultan frequently, often wondering how he was doing. She messaged other service members to ask about him. But after a couple of years, she lost touch with them and moved to Pittsburgh to continue her education.
A chance reunion
When Lowe responded to the handler that she was happy to take Szultan into her home, she was told that she had only two weeks to retrieve him all the way from Charleston, South Carolina. Stretched thin between her job and school, Lowe was unable to make the 10-hour drive from Pittsburgh. Instead, she reached out to Mission K9 Rescue, a nonprofit that helps reunite military canines with their handlers.
“Once the dog retires, no matter where they are, they are not considered a military service member anymore. They have become a pet, not a vet,” said Kristen Maurer, president of Mission K9 Rescue. “The military is not allowed to put a pet on a flight, so they’ll ask us to step in and get the dog.”
The group’s mission is to rescue, reunite, rehome, rehabilitate or repair any retired working dog that has served humanity in some capacity. Since 2013, they have rescued over 1,100 dogs and reunited over 540 working dogs with their former handlers.
“When it’s a dog we’ve been told has some behavioral issues, we’re very respectful of what we know they’re capable of. I asked Angela if we could fly him on a plane, and Angela felt like, ‘No, not a good idea,’” said Maurer.
Instead, the team flew from Texas to South Carolina, retrieved Szultan and drove a rental car with the canine to Pittsburgh.
Awaiting Szultan’s arrival, Lowe stood outside on the phone with Maurer, eager to reunite with the dog she had felt such a strong connection with. As soon as the truck pulled up and his carrier door opened, a timid Szultan walked straight into Lowe’s welcoming arms. “I know it’s so scary. I know, big guy. It’s OK. It’s all so new,” she reassured him. “Welcome to the pack, bud.”
Maurer wished Szultan a great retirement after all the hard work he had put in during his service. “It’s time for him to be on a sofa and to just get spoiled and loved. Angela will definitely do that,” she said.
Within a few days of their reunion, Szultan was more mellow than Lowe had seen him in seven years.
“Having him come back suddenly is like having a piece of the Air Force with me,” she said. “I’m looking forward to the summer, when I can go sit on a patio and have a couple of drinks with my buddy, Szultan.”
This is the sixth episode from AARP Studios’ new documentary series Reporting for Duty. Each month you can expect a new inspirational story about veterans and military families at YouTube.com/aarp.
Aaron Kassraie writes about issues important to military veterans and their families for AARP. He also serves as a general assignment reporter. Kassraie previously covered U.S. foreign policy as a correspondent for the Kuwait News Agency’s Washington bureau and worked in news gathering for USA Today and Al Jazeera English.