DOUGLAS — Retired Sgt. 1st Class Matthew Bessler sits quietly at the kitchen table, large, muscular hands wrapped around a Longmire Red Pony Saloon cup filled with hot coffee. He glances at a chewed-up tennis ball wedged into a recliner and quickly shifts his eyes away from that all-too-painful reminder of his combat brother, a member of the 10th Special Forces Group.
He and his combat brother served two tours in Iraq during a particularly deadly phase of the war. As an integral part of an elite canine tactical team, Bessler and Mike, a 57-pound musclebound Belgian Malinois, had been together for more than two years.
Quiet and unassuming, Bessler seems like any 40-something man from a rural neighborhood. But a closer look at his muscular frame and various tattoos suggest a military background. He speaks deliberately and softly, expressing thoughts and delivering his message in a controlled, fluid manner. On the outside, he appears mild-mannered and humble, but he wasn’t always that way. It’s taken years and herculean efforts to gain and maintain the composure displayed today – a visage Douglas residents witnessed this month during several Veteran’s Day events.
This is a war hero, a soldier who’s seen the worst of war and knows intimately the toll that it takes on those who take up the banner to protect our nation. But for every soldier, there comes a time when they know it’s over. They might be bleeding on the battlefield, recovering in a hospital, or flying back from a 10-month deployment. Whatever, it can be a painful moment for them to have to accept that they will no longer be serving their country.
That harsh reality settled in for Bessler as he was returning home from Iraq on a C-17 cargo plane in the spring of 2010. A 20-year Army vet, he had served six tours in Iraq, as well as tours in Somalia, Haiti and Bosnia, gathering intelligence and implementing his engineering expertise with the special forces. It was no surprise that he was returning home with the invisible wounds of war. But it was unusual that he was returning home on the same flight with part of his canine tactical team; K-9 Mike 5 #07-257, or Mike.
Bessler and the combat dog would be facing a different kind of war upon their return to Colorado.
Mike had been promoted to the rank of major for his service in the detection of thousands of pounds of explosives and bomb-making materials that no man or machine would otherwise have located. On the ground in Iraq, Bessler and Mike’s performance had been phenomenal, earning Bessler two Bronze Stars and Mike’s promotion. But the cost to both of them was devastating. Both were diagnosed with PTSD, and their highly successful military careers had come to an end.
Bessler joined the ranks of the 2.1 million veterans with PTSD, traumatic brain injury and the physical and mental needs left to them after serving their country. Although post-traumatic stress disorder is not a new diagnosis for soldiers returning home from war, the diagnosis was only being recognized as the possible explanation for various changed behaviors that some retired combat dogs exhibit.
Bessler recalled that while posted at a small base in the swamplands in southeastern Iraq, insurgent activity was reported two miles out. Bessler and Mike, two other special forces members and an Iraqi intelligence officer loaded their gear in an inflatable boat. In a bold move to cross in the cover of night, the boat started taking on water halfway to the other side and was near capsizing when the soldiers began tossing their gear overboard.
The Iraqi intelligence officer couldn’t swim, and Bessler dove in the rancid water full of muck and kelp. Bessler reached the officer just as he started going under. The current and debris had pulled the Iraqi away from Bessler’s grasp and he couldn’t locate him in the swirling blackness.
Bessler had lost him.
Then he realized that Mike had launched himself into the water. Although the dog had been trained to rappel from an airplane and master multiple other tasks, had no training in the water. Mike was drowning.
Bessler grabbed Mike, and gasping for air, pushed his way upward through the murky water, toward a dimly flashing light. Weighed down by his gear and strength nearly depleted, Bessler faintly recalls dragging himself and his dog out of the river.
It wasn’t the first death that Bessler had witnessed or tried to prevent, but it remains the most terrifying because Mike’s life had been in jeopardy.
Afterward, Mike became jumpy and on high alert, constantly keeping Bessler in his focus. He stopped searching for bombs and sniffing for explosives. The 10th Special Forces Group lead dog trainer told Bessler that Mike was done working. Bessler himself had begun feeling the grueling effects of war and started facing his own disabling trauma. But even worse than staring down the battle of transitioning into civilian life was the potential of losing his wartime companion Mike.
When Bessler and Mike’s flight home landed back in the states, Bessler went to his farm and Mike was transported to the Army’s military kennels at Fort Carson.
Civilian life was difficult for both. Mike, undergoing treatment at the specialized kennel facility, was refusing to eat or work with any of the handlers. Bessler suffered a complicated, messy divorce, along with flashbacks, nightmares and sleepless nights. He felt that the only thing that could stop all the pain was death.
But Mike needed him.
The waiting period for adoption was lengthy. The papers had been filed almost immediately upon their return to the states. Daily visits to see Mike was Bessler’s saving grace in a tumultuous time. It was apparent that the two depended upon each other in civilian life as much as they had in combat. Mike refused to eat unless Bessler was present, and he refused to work with any other handler other than Bessler. Mike was communicating in his canine way that he wanted only to stay with his human brother.
“He won’t work with anyone else,” the trainer called to tell Bessler one day. “He’s waiting for you to come back. Come pick up your dog.”
Finally, with the adoption official, the pair became each other’s support system. Their bond was stronger than the love that can grow between soldiers involved in combat, and Mike became a constant for Bessler in a world boiling over with chaos and change. They moved from Colorado back to Bessler’s home town of Powell in northwestern Wyoming, where Bessler’s father still lived and where he once was a star wrestler in high school.
In the calm setting of a quiet agricultural community, the pair began a journey toward healing. Besides the PTSD and TBI, Bessler suffered chronic headaches and migraines, probably caused from too many skirmishes around explosive devices in Iraq. He experienced chronic shoulder and back pain – attributed to years of carrying a 60-to-70-pound rucksack, rifles, ammo. He was plagued with hearing issues, memory and speech problems and blurred vision.
Bessler was drained of his strength and ability to function in normal day-to-day activities.
Mike was dealing with his own anxiety from war by chewing rocks instead of his once-beloved tennis balls. His gums and lips were torn and his teeth were crushed. He was hyper, unable to focus. Loud noises spooked him.
Bessler took him to a veterinarian that performed a series of surgeries that reconstructed his nose and mouth. He was placed on medications that calmed the anxiety.
Mike eventually returned to enthusiastic play with his tennis balls. He interacted enthusiastically with Bessler, which also reduced his anxiety and stress. The two were inseparable.
As Mike improved, Bessler continued fighting his physical and mental struggles. Mike easily picked up on Bessler’s moods, and when the feelings of depression, anxiety, or fear set in, the dog would climb on top of him or bring him a tennis ball, refusing to leave until Bessler would play. With his mind reset, Bessler could escape the brutality of his own PTSD and TBI for a while.
Bessler said often that he and Mike would die together. They had been combat brothers for two tours in Iraq and had come home to fight the ravages of their unseen wounds. They were healing together, but one day Bessler’s worst nightmare came true when Mike was shot and killed on an October day in Powell by a bicyclist who claimed the dog was attacking him.
“That dog was the other half of me,” said Bessler. “I know my dog. I have my story. This should never have happened to him.”
Friends rallied around Bessler with messages of support from around the world. He received offers of replacement puppies and service dogs, but Bessler declined them. Mike, 10 years old at the time of his death, couldn’t be replaced.
Bessler was inconsolable.
It’s not unusual for individual military units to hold tributes for dogs lost in combat, but a dog with Mike’s credentials was deserving of more than a tribute. He received a memorial service with full military honors. He was buried in Powell with the Powell Veterans Honor Guard presenting a 21-gun salute and Taps performed by a bugle player. A member of the Guard presented an American flag to Bessler, who was wearing his full Army dress uniform and green beret, and holding Mike’s brown leather leash. The funeral is only the second of its kind in modern history.
Since that dark day in 2015, Bessler has doggedly pursued the mission to survive and live a life worthwhile. There were times when he just wanted to quit. But a warrior keeps fighting, and when he made the choice to align his life with the life he was created to live, he found healing and the most important element of all: purpose.
That purpose has developed to a ministry of helping other veterans, through mentoring and connecting through various treatment programs, even offering himself as a volunteer “guinea pig” for holistic and faith-based programs.
Bessler puts down his coffee cup. he stands and picks up the tennis ball, thoughtfully rolling it around in his hands.
“Warriors that can’t go back to war sort of die inside. The longer you go without a renewed purpose, the more of you dies. As a soldier your purpose was to defend, protect and rescue. That’s service. You were called to service, and service is still your purpose.
“I’ve chosen to take my strength and help somebody else find theirs.”