Breaking News Emails
He endured the trauma of war with man's best friend. Now a young veteran is hoping a reunion with his canine comrade will finally bring him peace of mind.
For seven harrowing months in 2011, Lance Cpl. David Pond and his military working dog, Pablo, canvassed the roads of Afghanistan, nosing out hidden bombs that could take out a platoon. They survived scores of combat patrols and more than 30 firefights.
Breaking News Emails
"He was my rock, my foundation," Pond, 27, said of the Belgian malinois who became his best friend and protector.
"He saved my life more than once."
Their bond seemed unbreakable, but they were split up when Pond's service ended in 2011. The Marine went home to Colorado, and the dog moved on to stateside assignments.
Back on U.S. soil, Pond faced a new battle: post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury. And his troubles sparked a quest — to bring Pablo home.
It was a harder and longer journey than he expected. There were letters to politicians, an online petition and some red tape to cut through, but this week it finally happened.
At a Marine base in Albany, Georgia, Pablo was released from service and into the arms of an overjoyed Pond.
"I cheered," Pond said.
"It brings a big portion of closure to my life. He's mine."
There are 1,800 highly trained dogs on duty for the Defense Department at any given time, officials say. About 300 of them are adopted out each year — often to former handlers like Pond.
Pond says he was a "rebellious teenager" in the suburbs of Denver when a buddy dragged him into a Marine recruiting office. He signed up, was shipped off to Camp Pendleton for training and was eventually plucked out to be a K-9 handler.
His first deployment was to Iraq in 2009 with a female German shepherd named Zora. It was a relatively quiet stint, but Zora was later killed in combat.
When Pond came back to Camp Lejeune, he asked for another dog to train with so he could expand his skill set — and he was given Pablo.
"It was love at first sight," Pond said.
"He was very goofy, very stubborn, very hardheaded. It seemed like every day he would test me."
The biggest tests were yet to come.
In December 2010, Pond and Pablo were shipped to Afghanistan. They rotated through four different units, keeping mostly to themselves when they weren't out on patrol.
The hunts for IEDs were exceedingly dangerous. One missed scent and the next step could be their last.
"It was kind of fun for a little bit, until I finally saw a casualty," Pond said.
As Pond's enlistment drew to a close, a higher-up told him that the dog wouldn't be going back into combat and that he would probably be able to adopt him.
But that's not how it turned out.
Pablo went to the base in Albany, where he would serve on the Secret Service details for Presidents Obama, Clinton and Carter. Pond began the transition to civilian life, a rocky one.
"I was having anger issues and panic attacks. Any loud noise, I wanted to hit the ground," Pond said.
His relationships frayed and insomnia took hold — and Pablo was always on his mind. In his free time, the veteran would search social media and the Internet for photos that would tell him how the dog was doing.
In May 2014, he went to visit Pablo in Georgia and again made inquiries about adopting the pooch but was told he wasn't eligible for retirement yet.
A few months later, Pond sought therapy for his PTSD. His therapist agreed that being reunited with Pablo could be helpful, and Pond asked his congressman to make a request.
Last May, the military sent back a reply: Pond could submit a formal application for Pablo, but the dog was not yet available for adoption.
That's when Pond decided to take his effort public. He started a petition on Change.org that had racked up more than 185,000 signatures by last week.
Last month, after he submitted his papers directly to the Marines, Pond finally got the big news: the adoption had been approved.
Because of Pond's PTSD, Pablo could be retired early, said William Childress, manager of the military working dog program for the Marines. But since the animal was still medically and physically fit, the Secretary of the Navy had to sign off on the handover, he said.
"The bond between the dog and its handler — it's very special," Childress said.
Now a student at the University of Alabama, Pond traveled to Georgia with his parents for the dog's retirement ceremony on Tuesday.
WIth the declaration of "Mission complete, Marine!" the 9-year-old who had saved infantry lives in the war zone began his own transition to a quieter life.
And Pond hopes that means the same for him.
“He’s the closest thing to a son I’ve ever had," he said. "I love him with all my heart."