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EAGLE RIVER, Alaska (AP) — In Iraq they were inseparable, a daring duo whose mission was to seek out dangerous explosives hidden in the desert. But as often happens after a combat deployment, the two friends drifted apart. In the years following Iraq, new assignments and advancing age sent them down separate paths.
That's how the story of Rob and Aron might have ended if it hadn't been for a New Mexico retiree's dogged determination to bring the former battle buddies back together one more time.
MSgt. Rob Black has trained and handled Military Working Dogs (MWD) for much of his time in the Air Force. A lifelong animal lover, the Eagle River resident said working with dogs is the best job he can imagine.
"What other job in the military can you play with animals?" Black said. "Plus, where else do you get to do something as good as saving people and finding explosives?"
While stationed at Kirtland Air Force Base in New Mexico, Black was assigned a MWD named "Aron," a young German Shepherd whose bark was worse than his bite. That's not always such a good thing for MWD's, animals often tasked with attacking the bad guys and not letting go.
"We determined he wasn't a street dog," Black said. "He'd bark his head off and come after you, but."
Black said Aron could look the part, but the dog didn't have much of a killer instinct. But Aron's sense of smell was second to none, and Black soon realized the canine's uncanny nose would make an outstanding bomb detector. Aron found his niche.
"He was an awesome bomb dog," Black said.
Rob and Aron deployed to Iraq in 2005 in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom, where they first got an unwelcome reception from the Army unit they were assigned to. On their first patrol, Aron barked nonstop while confined to the vehicle. After that, not a lot of soldiers wanted to ride with the dog handler and his noisy partner.
"Nobody wanted to hang with Aron," Black said.
That changed in Jan. 2006, when Black and Aron were called into help clear a village of danger. Sniffing into the wind, the German Shepherd followed the ground with his nose before alerting to something buried underground. It turned out to be 17 pounds of powerful C-4 explosives. After that, Black said commanders began asking for Aron by name.
"They said, 'For what we get we'll put up with the barking,'" he said.
The pair developed a strong bond. That doesn't always happen with handlers and dogs, Black said, but there was something special about his partnership with Aron.
"Me and him worked really well together," Black said.
Everywhere Black went in Iraq, Aron was at his side.
"Except to eat or take a shower, we were together 24-7," Black said.
A memorable photo op
Black and Aron continued as a team after their return stateside, working high-profile duty like presidential appearances or major events. During his bomb-sniffing duties, Aron rubbed noses with big-name celebrities like Susan Sarandon and David Bowie.
Aron even met the Dalai Lama.
Black said he and Aron had just finished sweeping the Tibetan Buddhist leader's hotel room during a visit to New York City when Secret Service members told them to make themselves scarce.
"We're supposed to be kinda behind the scenes," Black said.
He and Aron ducked into an adjacent room while the Dalai Lama entered. Black kept still and quiet, but he couldn't keep the dog from introducing himself to the global icon.
"He comes in and Aron goes (Bark! Bark! Bark!)," Black said, doing his best imitatation of a wildly-barking Aron.
Black said the Dalai Lama took things in stride. In fact, the monk walked up and gently offered his hand to the animal — then made a surprising request.
"He wanted to get a picture," Black said.
In the photo, Black stands proudly between his partner and His Holiness. The Dalai Lama wears a wide grin; Aron wears a muzzle.
The duo parted ways in 2008, when Black was transferred to Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson. Unlike civilian police K-9 units — which typically live and retire with their handlers — MWD's are assigned by base and have several handlers. After leaving New Mexico, Black figured he'd seen the last of Aron.
"You never get to see the dogs again," he said. "Most of the time you only hear when they pass."
After a career that included three tours in Iraq and numerous presidential details, a 9-year-old Aron was retired from active duty in 2011.
The Department of Defense operates an adoption program for working dogs that gives priority to civilian law enforcement agencies and former handlers. If they're still available after that, dogs are adopted out to the public — although they're often highly sought after. More than a thousand applications for MWD adoptions are processed each year, according to the DOD. In addition to an application process, potential owners are screened to make sure they're good candidates for adoption. The adoptions are free, but new owners must pay to have the dogs transported to their new home.
Albuquerque's Jo Johnson heard about MWD adoptions online. After doing some research, she realized there was an Air Force kennel just down the road at Kirtland AFB. Having lost her last German Shepherd in 2005, Johnson said she was hoping to find a similar dog to fill the void when she applied for a MWD.
When a representative from Kirtland called and said a dog was available, Johnson's heart jumped. Then she heard the dog's name: Aron.
"I about fell out of my chair because my other two shepherds were Arnie and Augie," she said.
Johnson soon scheduled a meeting with Aron, and the two hit it off immediately.
"I just knew he was for me," she said.
In their two years together, Johnson said Aron has been an ideal canine companion. He's friendly to family members and protective of Johnson around strangers. And unless there's a motorcycle nearby, he doesn't even bark as much as he used to.
"I lucked out," Johnson said.
Although she was thrilled to have a new companion, something about Aron's past nagged at Johnson. From the handlers at Kirtland, she knew of Aron's wartime heroics, and she wanted to know more about the dog's former life. So she again went online, and it wasn't long before she heard from Black.
During their first phone conversation, Johnson said she put Black on speakerphone. Sitting nearby, Aron's ears came to attention.
"He recognized him," Johnson said, her voice cracking with emotion. "I knew when he ran to get some toys."
Black and Johnson hit it off right away, sharing stories about Aron's unique personality over the phone.
"We talked for a good long time about the escapades of the dog," Black said.
Johnson said she knew what she had to do.
Earlier this spring, she told her boss she was retiring from her longtime job as a bookkeeper and buying a motor home.
"He thought I was nuts," she said.
In June, Johnson and Aron began the trip from New Mexico to Alaska. On July 2, they arrived in Eagle River, pulling into Black's driveway after a 3,600-mile journey. There, they waited for Black to return home from work.
After five years apart, Black said he wasn't sure what Aron's reaction would be to seeing him. Black needn't have worried.
"I just let Aron go and he ran up to him," Johnson said, recalling the reunion.
Black said it was as if the pair had never been separated.
"I pulled up and he just came right up to me and hung out," he said.
Johnson spent the first part of July camped out in Black's driveway, letting Rob and Aron spend time together rekindling a bond they shared while serving their country. For Black, Johnson's commitment to making the reunion happen was a unique gift.
"You just don't get this kind of opportunity," he said.
Johnson said getting to see dog and handler reunited made the long journey worthwhile.
"This is one of the best adventures I've ever had," she said.