A warrior's heart
By Kenneth Fine
Published in News on February 28, 2013 1:46 PM
An unidentified man was in critical condition after this accident early today at the intersection of N.C. 55 and Indian Springs Road just east of Mount Olive. Five children en route to Carver Elementary School and the driver of the car also were taken to Wayne Memorial Hospital.
Ralph, a 12-year Air Force veteran, has a much different life -- and home -- since he retired from the service last October. But his best friend, John Makripodis, remains.
John Makripodis tries to take a rubber ball away from his dog, Ralph. The former Air Force military working dog, a Belgian Malinois, found his forever home with his former handler's family after his Oct. 26 retirement.
Ralph gets some love from his mom, Stevi Makripodis.
Carlos trains before a deployment several years ago.
A tribute to Carlos located in the Makripodis home
His dark eyes fixated on the large, rubber ball secured tightly between his two front paws, Ralph doesn't flinch when his owner says his name.
His ears don't perk up when John Makripodis repeats himself -- when the young man switches tactics and begins beckoning him with subtle whistling and clicking sounds.
But Makripodis doesn't take the Belgian Malinois' indifference personally.
He knows that for the past 12 years, obedience, for Ralph, has been a way of life -- that until a few months ago, one of the Air Force's most dependable military working dogs never turned his back on a command.
And he understands that the time he and his family will have with their newest member is fleeting -- that retirement, for his four-legged comrade, will only last so long once the wear and tear of a life of service begins to reveal itself.
So he pampers Ralph with toys and treats.
He shelved the thick leather collar the dog once wore on patrol and replaced it with one that reflects his owner's affection for the Pittsburgh Steelers.
He bought a soft bed, which, when compared to the hard slab he slept on inside the Seymour Johnson Air Force Base kennel for more than a decade, is a luxury.
Ralph, Makripodis said, was just like any other airman -- an all-too-often unsung hero with an unwavering dedication to whatever mission he was called upon to accomplish for his nation.
So now that his military career has come to an end, he deserves to be, for the first time in his life, just another dog.
Born in July 2000, Ralph was, during his tenure, Seymour Johnson's lone narcotics detector dog.
He worked with the FBI to deter a smuggling operation at Pope Air Field.
He helped members of the 4th Fighter Wing Security Forces Squadron convict local airmen who were in possession of spice and illegal prescription medication.
He swept cars during a series of late-night operations aimed at ensuring the Goldsboro installation remained drug-free.
But Ralph's work was not limited to drug-related missions.
During routine patrol duties, he accomplished his many charges with "a state of perfection that was unparalleled by his fellow MWDs," officials said.
And during air shows and other public events, he was called upon to demonstrate, with his handler, the capabilities of the dogs used across the military to deter crime at home and to ward off threats in theater.
"He was one of the best," Makripodis said, scratching the Malinois' shoulders and neck. "Isn't that right, Ralph? Who's a good boy?"
But the shelf life of an Air Force MWD is only so long.
And when a retirement date is set, there are only two possibilities -- adoption or euthanasia.
"Whenever we see the dogs getting to the end of their career, we start to say, 'OK. Who wants to take these dogs home?'" Makripodis said.
But if they are deemed too aggressive, that option simply doesn't exist.
Makripodis knows all too well what happens when a MWD is labeled unfit for adoption.
It's a reality he lives with every time he walks by an urn located on a display cabinet inside his home.
In a perfect world, two of the dogs retired Oct. 26 would be spending their remaining years chasing around the airman's children.
But one of them, a Dutch shepherd named Carlos, was simply "way too aggressive."
Makripodis still gets emotional when he talks about the day he stood by his comrade's side and watched him take his final breath.
"It was hard -- really, really hard," he said. "Carlos was a legend."
In his 11 years in the Air Force, the shepherd was deployed eight times to all major theaters of war -- from Iraq and Afghanistan to Southwest Asia, Jordan and Saudi Arabia -- where he sniffed out improvised explosive devices, thousands of rounds of ammunition, 100 anti-personnel mine casings, two anti-tank mines, RPGs and mortar rounds.
But the moment that defined his legacy unfolded on a stretch of road in Baghdad when, after getting blown back by an IED, he stayed in attack mode.
He never gave up -- not with chipped teeth or a bleeding mouth.
And from that day until his last, his reputation as a fighter endured.
In the years that followed, he was called upon by the Secret Service time and time again -- surviving another near-death experience when he was badly cut during a bomb sweep he performed in advance of a presidential visit to an undisclosed complex along the East Coast.
"He just wouldn't quit," Makripodis said. "That's just the kind of dog he was."
But the airman doesn't get emotional about those particular moments in the shepherd's career.
Carlos, back then, wasn't his responsibility.
It's a more recent mission, one of Carlos' last, that still weighs heavy on the airman's heart.
"We were in the mountains of Afghanistan and it's like 15 degrees and we did a long haul -- 26 to 30 miles, just on and on," Makripodis said. "We were outside the wire for 30 hours. There were no vehicles -- no real support.
"And I can just remember, at one point, we were just there in a ditch, curled up, trying to sleep while the other guys were covering my ass around me. He was all I had. Just a small thing like that, it builds such a strong bond."
So when the day to say goodbye finally came, a grown man, for only the second time his wife, Stevi, can remember, broke down.
"I've only seen him cry two times," she said. "One of them was the day they put Carlos down."
Makripodis chokes up.
"It's definitely still tough," he said, clearing his throat. "You know, the rapport you build with the dog -- the relationship between man and dog -- is like none other. So I miss him. I'll always miss him."
It's a connection most will never fully understand -- the cord that forever binds MWD handlers to their canine counterparts at the end of the leash.
But Makripodis will never forget that on those long missions both outside the wire in Afghanistan and back on Seymour Johnson, he would have gladly laid down his life for Carlos and Ralph -- that they, without hesitation, would have done the same for him.
So he will tell their stories and display their honors proudly long after his own stint in the Air Force comes to an end.
And he will remember -- always -- just how many lives they saved and the countless others they touched.
Just another man and his dog?
Ralph, John -- and Carlos -- were, and always will be, brothers in arms.