FORT EUSTIS, Va. - The room fell silent as the door opened. After being apart for two months, their eyes found each other’s, as if the handful of onlookers surrounding them were nonexistent.
That emotional moment was solidified with a kneeling embrace - and the wag of a tail. But only one of them knew Feb. 28 was more than a joyful reunion: it was also the beginning of a new future.
U.S. Army Sgt. John Nolan, former senior specialized-search dog handler previously assigned to the 3rd Military Police Detachment at Fort Eustis, and Honza , a 7-year-old yellow lab SSD, have been partners since January 2011, and after completing an adoption process, are now able to maintain that bond as they both separate from military service.
Nolan, a native of Wilkes-Barre, Pa., is currently in the process of separating after seven years of active-duty service, where he served first as a military policeman and later as an SSD handler. Nolan is now joining the Army Reserves, and is currently on terminal leave.
He and his father, Jack, left home at 2 a.m. that morning to finalize the adoption paperwork and take Honza home - a seven-and-a-half-hour drive, Nolan said was well worth it.
“I’m [basically] the only handler he’s had, and he’s the only dog I’ve ever worked with. This was the longest we’ve been away from each other,” said Nolan. “Driving here with my dad, he told me I should get some sleep, and I said ‘I can’t - I feel like a kid on Christmas, because I can’t wait to [get] down there to [see] him.’”
Nolan and Honza’s partnership resulted somewhat by chance, said Nolan. Originally, Honza was procured as a puppy from Germany, and trained at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio. He spent several years in training before leaving to work with an engineering unit. Honza didn’t quite perform with his assigned handler as anticipated, and was sent back to Lackland soon after, labeled as an “untrainable dog.”
“Lackland put him back in the pool, and that’s how I ended up with him,” he said. “For whatever reason, he just decided I was going to be the one he worked for, and we’ve been together ever since.”
But before their partnership brought them to the February adoption day in Virginia, their bond was forged in the heat of the desert, during a yearlong deployment in Afghanistan.
“I had reenlisted while in Afghanistan to spend another year with [Honza],” he said. “We were together every minute of every day for a year. He slept in bed with me; when I had to shower he’d wait outside for me; he sat next to me when I ate and waited until I was done. He probably knows me better than anybody else.”
Because the SSD program is winding down as forces return from Afghanistan, Honza’s adoption process was a bit easier than most, said Staff Sgt. Jeffrey Michaud, 3rd MP Det. kennel master.
“It’s fantastic when we are able to facilitate adoptions,” he said. “[Nolan] and Honza have such great rapport, and with the mission changing, it only made sense to come together as a team to get the process started and make this happen.”
With the mission changing, the need to send SSD handlers to school will decrease, potentially leaving no handler to work with Honza, said Nolan. Honza has also developed some separation anxiety, which puts him at risk for health concerns.
The combination of Nolan separating to join the Army Reserves, the SSD program changes and Honza’s anxiety, Nolan said it made sense for the two partners to remain together.
“He’s pretty much my best friend. Afghanistan was an entire year of being together every single moment,” he said. “He saved my life on more than one occasion. He’s more like my son than anything else … so it was only right to make sure he came home with me and had a good place to live for the rest of his [life].”
After signing the remaining adoption documents, Nolan shared a few laughs and stories with his fellow handlers, allowing them to bid a proper farewell before Nolan and Honza left to begin the next chapter of their friendship.
Nolan reached for Honza’s collar and leash, and the pair walked out the kennel’s gate. Honza excitedly jumped into the back of Nolan’s car, sniffing the carpet as he discovered crumbs left behind by Nolan’s children.
Although Honza may never again serve with his pack at the 3rd MP Det. kennels, he will now join a new pack with Nolan, where he can not only live as his partner, but as a member of his family.