Military and law enforcement working dogs are vital. They not only add capabilities for the units they serve with, like finding the enemy faster due to their powerful sense of smell; they also save their lives in the process. These dogs willingly sacrifice themselves in the process of saving their team. Atos was one of them.
Randy Roy served four years in the 2nd Ranger Battalion of the Army in the 1980's and went on to become a law enforcement officer in Iowa. He began working with the K9 unit and training dogs. In 2007 he was approached by the United States Army Special Operations Command (USASOC) to become a Contract Trainer for their military working dogs. Roy and his family left their home in the Midwest and settled outside of Ft. Bragg in North Carolina shortly after that.
Atos was the first military working dog he trained.
Roy shared that USASOC acquired Atos in the summer of 2007. "Atos was a goofball, hard head, Malinois. He was awesome. Atos was kind of stubborn but very trainable and learned quickly," said Roy. He continued on saying, "He was very sociable with everyone. They truly become part of the team and he certainly became a team member." When Atos finished his training, he deployed to Iraq.
It was while in Iraq that he was assigned to his handler. The handler had just lost his previous military working dog, Duke, who was killed in action during a firefight. Roy shared that at first, Atos' handler didn't want to like him, most likely because the loss of Duke was so fresh. But Atos grew on him quickly.
Jarrett "Fish" Heavenston and Roy connected on that deployment, with Heavenson often volunteering for Atos' training and happily donning a bite suit. Heavenston joined the Army at seventeen in 1991 and completed seven years as a ranger. He also worked in jungle warfare and USASOC. Heavenston wanted to do something different, so he left the Army and joined the Air Force in 2001 as a Combat Controller where he stayed until he retired in 2016.
"They [working military dogs] recognized who their tribe or pack was and they were very protective of them. We are kind of look, dress and walk the same; if you weren't part of that pack they were alert and watching you and on guard,' said Heavenston. As a Combat Controller, he was with many different dogs; he shared that some dogs were approachable, and friendly and that's how Atos was described.
On Christmas Eve in 2007, Heavenston and his team were tracking enemy combatants. The brush was incredibly thick and woody. "It was very tough to move in the brush. We knew they were in there and waiting for us," he shared. Heavenston said that he was helping to guide the handler as he was casting Atos out. The dog was able to find and track the guy they were looking for because of his keen sense of smell; but that meant that the team lost sight of Atos.
Although Atos quickly made his way through the brush, the team moved behind him much more slowly due to the difficulty of navigating the tough terrain. "You have the best-trained guys in the world out there, but it doesn't negate that what you are doing is really hard," said Heavenston. He shared that between the rough terrain and fading daylight, it was a tough operation.
"The dog is on him the dog is on him" is what Heavenston remembers hearing from the communications with an aircraft above them. They didn't realize it was Atos at first, but eventually, they heard the commotion.
Shortly after that, the enemy combatant blew himself up, killing not just himself, but Atos.
Four members of their team were wounded that night, some grievously. "Had Atos not done what he had done, it would have been much worse," shared Heavenston. He knows that if Atos hadn't engaged with the enemy and forced him to detonate his bomb early, there would have been certain loss of human life that Christmas Eve.
"There are hundreds of dogs out there who have made the ultimate sacrifice. There are many of us within the military that are here today because of what they did," said Heavenston. It was with this in mind that his company, Tough Stump Technologies (which Atos' trainer, Roy, became a part of), decided to hold an event in Atos' honor.
Touch Stump Technologies partnered with K9 for Warriors to raise money through their event for the organization, which is working to end veteran suicide and return dignity to America's heroes by pairing them with service dogs. Dogs are paired with veterans who are diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), traumatic brain injury (TBI), or have suffered military sexual trauma (MST).
The event will celebrate the life and sacrifice of Atos and all working dogs on March 13, 2020.
Heavenston also shared that his company is working hard to develop technology that would allow the military to better track their military working dogs. "If we had this on Atos that night, that narrative would have been a lot different," said Heavenston. The hope is that with specialized GPS tracking capabilities, they won't lose dogs like they lost Atos.Working dogs are an integral part of the military and law enforcement. On this K9 Veteran's Day, take a moment to remember the dogs like Atos that willingly sacrificed their lives to save their people. Every loss is felt deeply, and the gratitude for the lives they've saved is unmeasurable. Don't forget them.