Meet Gabe. He’s a noncommissioned officer (a sergeant first class), a combat veteran and a hero with some 40 awards including three Army Commendation Medals and an Army Achievement medal. He’s trained to sniff out explosives, weapons and ammunition.
He’s also a dog. But he’s not just any dog: He’s a rescue dog, a military working dog and, as of a recent awards ceremony in Beverly Hills, the American Humane Association’s 2012 Hero Dog of the Year.
It almost never happened, however, because Gabe was a dismal failure at the Military Working Dog School at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas. At first he didn’t realize he was supposed to be a military working dog, his former handler and current owner Sgt. 1st Class Charles Shuck said. “He was being a dog. … He just didn’t want to search, didn’t want to find stuff.” Gabe, who had somehow made his way to the Army after turning up in a Texas pound, didn’t even know how to sit. Shuck had quickly fallen in love with the goofy 3-year-old yellow Lab, working with him patiently for weeks, bonding with him more than the other dog he had been assigned, but he dreaded their final evaluation.
“Just prior to the final evaluation at SSD (specialized search dog) school,” he remembered, “I didn’t think Gabe was going to be my dog. He was not, at the end, working out too well for me. I liked him more than the other dog personally, but I had to take the dog that would save my life downrange.
“It kind of broke my heart, but when we got to that final evaluation, he was on it. You’d think he knew that if he didn’t perform, he was not going with me. Gabe actually performed like a rock star and Doki (the other dog) was scared of the dark.”
Seventeen days later, in August 2006, Shuck and Gabe were on a plane, heading to Iraq with the 178th Military Police Detachment. They would spend the next 13 months going out on more than 210 combat missions with the 1st Battalion, 37th Field Artillery Regiment and the 5th Battalion, 82nd Field Artillery Regiment, some as long as 18 hours, occasionally coming under fire and searching for explosives and weapons during everything from night raids to patrols to cordon searches to checkpoints. Gabe didn’t like the sound of gunfire – he would shake at the sound of .50s and still tries to hide from loud noises – but he had 26 finds, making him the most successful detection dog in Iraq that year.
Shuck wishes they’d been on every mission. “We always say that maybe we would have found something that killed somebody.” Even if Gabe found a single bullet, it was a victory, he said, pointing out that was one less bullet that could be used against American troops.
The pair were together 24 hours a day in Iraq, and realizing that “no matter what kind of bad day I was having, Gabe was always there,” making him feel better, Shuck started taking Gabe to visit other units and Soldiers who were having a hard time. In fact, Gabe’s volunteer therapy dog role became at least as important as his actual detection job.
“To me, dogs bring more than just their nose,” Shuck said. “You have a dog out there that’s trained to do a mission, to find bombs, to find bad guys, but then also, you’re able to bring that sense of comfort and home to Soldiers. … They’re able to touch Gabe and kiss Gabe and love Gabe, and that’s just an amazing feeling.”
Gabe was, and is, a docile dog, Shuck added, not a typical hyper Lab and not a tough scary working dog, just a loveable, cuddly overgrown puppy. “As Soldiers were killed, if we were able to go over to the unit and just let them cry on Gabe’s fur and just go be the dog in that unit, we did that. Or, on our way out of Iraq, we got to visit the combat hospitals and visit American Soldiers who were wounded in there and just go in there and let them love up on Gabe for about two hours. It was amazing.”
A year after the pair returned to Fort Hood, Shuck received drill sergeant orders to Fort Jackson, S. C. It was time to give Gabe up, and it “was horrifying … when I had to put him in the truck and shut the door and watch him get driven away” to Lackland. Gabe had other ideas, however: He simply refused to work with a new handler. He would not sniff for anyone else, trainers at Lackland told Shuck when he stopped by for a visit a few weeks after they parted. Did he want to adopt Gabe?
Yes, of course.
“I was happy. I’m not going to lie, I was very happy. I knew he still had stuff to give to America, but I guess me being selfish, I wanted him to be at home with me, because that’s where I knew he belonged. When he left, it was like a piece of my heart was taken out. I almost died.”
The staff at Lackland pushed the paperwork through in a week. There was only one problem: Gabe was mad at Shuck, angry that he had given him away. He ignored Shuck, refusing to come to him. Fortunately a few treats did the trick. Like most Labs, Shuck explained, Gabe is a food hound and will forgive anything for treats.
While they were still at Fort Hood, one of Shuck’s superiors had secretly submitted Gabe for the 2007 American Kennel Club Heroic Dog of the Year competition. Gabe won, which Shuck said was “pretty cool,” and Gabe was even recognized by a local football team for his service. The two also began visiting local schools to talk to kids about respect and the importance of staying in school. He’s also working on becoming a certified therapy dog, and is planning to visit Saint Jude Children’s Research Hospital in November.
“When we were in Iraq, we wrote to a lot of kids,” Shuck remembered. “We just got to talking to kids about respect and all that stuff, staying in school, respecting each other, respecting their teachers. … They see me as a Soldier, and … I think they look up to Soldiers … as heroes. I started talking about Gabe and where he came from: You know, he was a pound puppy and then he went to war and he wears his little bling-bling metals around his neck and, of course, I make Gabe talk to them. He speaks to them and barks ands stuff. Our thing is if we can talk to a group of kids, if there’s 20 kids in the room and if we (keep) one of those kids from doing the wrong thing, then we’ve done our job for that day.”
Gabe’s getting older – he’s almost 10 – and is on medication for his hip, but Shuck said he loves these visits. He loves the attention, the hugs, even getting his tail pulled. And in his off time, he hangs out with his “brother,” another yellow Lab named Duke and his “sister,” Lena, a husky mix. Gabe also loves tennis balls — tennis balls and naps. He also loves getting his photo taken, which has come in handy as Shuck posted photos of Gabe every day on Facebook, encouraging followers to cast daily votes in the American Humane Association’s 2012 Hero Dog competition.
Shuck actually entered Gabe last year, and the Lab came in second place in the Military Hero Dog category with 14,000 votes in the three-month preliminary round of voting. This year, he received 190,000 votes, easily taking the Military Hero category, and going on to compete against seven other hero dogs in categories like Search and Rescue, Law Enforcement, Guide and Therapy to win the overall title and raise $15,000 for the War Dogs Association.
Celebrities like Betty White and Whoopie Goldberg helped pick the winner at an awards ceremony Oct. 6 at the Beverly Hilton Hotel in Los Angeles. White also served as master of ceremonies and NCIS’s Pauley Perrette and Cougar Town’s Josh Hopkins presented the award. Look for it Nov. 8 on the Hallmark Channel at 8:00 p.m. Eastern time.
“We are speechless right now,” Shuck posted on Facebook just after the ceremony. “We are so honored and humbled.”
Editor’s note: To learn how you can adopt your own hero dog like Gabe, see “Adopt a Veteran” in the February 2010 issue of Soldiers: http://www.army.mil/article/34905/adopt-a-veteran/.