Hero comes home
By Kenneth Fine
Published in News on April 5, 2014 10:39 PM
He was touched by a unique bond -- one typically reserved for those who have fallen under attack alongside a comrade.
He was marked with a sense of loyalty -- a commitment so powerful that it drives him to follow his best friend wherever he goes and to whine for him when he leaves.
He was imprinted with a certain selflessness -- a desire to succumb to whatever command his handler deems necessary.
Staff Sgt. Ben Seekell reciprocates.
Charlie was, after all, his "anchor" after an improvised explosive device knocked the duo out of combat May 7, 2011.
He was there to listen as the airman dealt with the reality of losing a leg in Afghanistan.
He absorbed some of the limelight when, during Seekell's recovery, attention from the media began to take its toll.
And he never placed judgment -- not when the everyday struggles of being a husband and father set in; not when his partner questioned whether or not he would be the same man he was before he was fitted with a prosthesis.
So when the Air Force retired Military Working Dog Charlie, there was never any question about where he would spend his remaining years.
Seekell was going to bring him home -- and strive to give him the "rest he deserves."
And these days, inside a humble house on Seymour Johnson Air Force Base, a four-legged hero is now, simply, a ball-chasing, tail-wagging, springtime shedding dog.
"We get our use out of them for sure, so when it comes time for them to be at the end of their career, the least we can do is send them off the right way -- with a tribute and a thanks for what they've done for us," Seekell said. "I can't smell bombs. I can't run 25 miles an hour and take down a suspect. The dogs are the ones who are doing the lion's share of the work. ... So bringing Charlie home, it's what he deserves. It's what's right."
Charlie was at the end of a leash when Seekell stepped on an improvised explosive device buried in a ravine located just outside the Bagram Airfield wire.
"There was an explosion underneath me. It kind of blew me up in the air a little bit," Seekell said. "I fell back down -- landed on my chest -- and when I rolled over, I felt a sensation of pressure in my legs.
"I was worried at first that I had lost both of them, but when I looked down, I saw my right foot first. I thought, 'Man, maybe this isn't so bad.' Then I looked at my left foot. It was just a mess down there."
But despite the severity of his injury, the airman was more worried about the comrade he had been holding until just before he hit the ground.
"The first thing I said was, 'Where's Charlie? Is he OK?'" Seekell said. "I mean, he's my dog. He's my partner."
Charlie was "a little anxious," but it was the airman who had taken the brunt of the blast.
His K-9 comrade escaped with relatively minor injuries -- "blown out" eardrums and shrapnel to his hind quarters.
Knowing that Charlie would be OK, Seekell started crawling.
"I knew I had to get out of there," he said.
And he simply wasn't willing to allow one of his comrades to endanger themselves by retrieving him.
"Then I saw somebody's hand reached out," the airman said. "So I grabbed it."
When he finally got out of the ravine, Seekell began to assess his injuries.
"I knew I wasn't going to die from losing a leg, but I was worried about the bleeding," he said.
So he pulled out his tourniquet and had another man tie it on before the team continued toward the 12-foot concrete barriers guarding the base they had been operating out of since March.
"I had one guy under each arm and I was trying to use my good leg to help walk. After a while, though ... I just had them set me down," Seekell said. "I don't know whether it was from the loss of blood or just the shock, but I started getting dizzy. But the whole time, the guys are talking to me -- doing a really great job."
Days later, his recovery would begin at Walter Reed Army Medical Center.
"Was I still going to be able to work with the dogs? Was I going to be as efficient at the job as I was before? I didn't know," Seekell said. "There were a lot of unknowns. I mean, I had my gut feeling that, 'Oh yeah. I can do it.' But actually coming here to the kennels and pulling the dog out for the first time, it was a little nerve-wracking.
"I think Charlie knew. He was just awesome. He worked like a champ -- like he always does -- and helped me through that. Just with him being so steadfast, I used him as an anchor."
And by September, he and Charlie were well enough to travel to New York City to commemorate, with other members of the 4th Fighter Wing Security Forces Squadron, the 10th anniversary of the terrorist attack that propelled the U.S. military into war theaters across the globe.
The airman has tried to take the attention he has received since he was injured in stride.
"They always say that everyone gets their 15 minutes of fame, and if it happens, you should just accept it and be happy about it. I feel like I got a little more than that --more than I probably would have wanted," Seekell said. "The way I look at it, I'm just one of many that have done what they had to do in service of their country.
"It was great, you know -- some cameras, tell the story, people appreciate it -- but at the end of the day, I just want to work with these dogs ... especially when there are hundreds of other people out there who have done even more amazing things that you just haven't heard about. I did what I did. What happened happened. But I just want to press on and go back to being Ben."
Charlie might be retired, but Seekell is finding out that old habits really do die hard.
The dog still performs "sweeps" of bags and vehicles parked in the family's driveway.
And his powerful jaw still bites through the occasional toy -- and, the other day, Seekell's 5-year-old son, Caiden's, soccer ball.
But none of Charlie's tendencies seem to bother the Seekells.
They know he is where he is meant to be -- that their husband and father would be incomplete without his partner by his side.
Both the dog and his former handler have been touched by that unique bond, marked with that sense of loyalty and imprinted with a selflessness that would see each gladly lay down his life for the other.
"He was the only other one who was there that day with me who is in the area. I know he can't talk about it, but I know he was there and he knows that he was there. That unspoken thing with a dog, when you can just kind of look at each other and know what the other is thinking, it's special," Seekell said. "And I know that if I, even as he sits right now -- 10 years old with wear on him -- if I asked him to go, said, 'Hey buddy, let's get in the truck and go back to Afghanistan tomorrow,' he would go out and push until he dropped.
"He would do it for me. That's an awesome feeling to have about your partner."