A Soldier’s Best Friend

By Peter D. Koryzno
MCC Communications Manager

1web_patrol-dog_standalone_prod_affiliate_91Ever since Afghanistan in 2009, the month of February has always been a tough one for Jeff DeYoung, a Marine Corps veteran now pursuing a criminal justice degree at Muskegon Community College. This past February was no different. His thoughts returned to the close friends killed during the U.S.-led efforts to overtake the Taliban stronghold of Marjah. Invariably, his thoughts, too, were of Cena, his canine partner, who for more than a year shared every step by intense step of his wartime experiences.

The two were counter explosives specialists. Jeff, who joined the Marines the day he graduated from Jenison High, trained as a combat engineer. Newly arrived at Camp Lejune, he quickly replaced working with a metal detector to handling Cena. A two-year-old, mild-mannered but keen-sensed Labrador whose sire was a champion bird dog, Cena had been assisting the Marines since he was a pup.

“I fell in love with him instantly,” recalled Jeff. “He’s a goofy dog. He’ll lope around with his ears flopping. He reminds me a bit of Eeyore, the Winnie the Pooh character. Nothings gets to him. He can get excited but I’ve never seen him misbehave.”

Jeff had many opportunities to watch him in action. After nearly two months of training together, they were deployed to the front lines – always working 50-75 yards ahead of his Marine squad – to detect IEDs in roadways and later in the city of Marjah itself. A lone infantryman situated himself behind Jeff, who needed both arms to deliver his commands to Cena.

“The fighting was block by block and then sometimes having to retake that block again,” remembered Jeff. “It was like mowing your lawn five times. You’re constantly going over what you’ve already done. You really didn’t have time to think about it. By the time you get to rest, you’re just trying to sleep. It’s purely survival to an extent. Some days, you’ll get up before 3 a.m. – before the sun comes up – and you have to try and operate because you could be going until 7 a.m. the next day.”

Jeff had to think about Cena’s morale, as well.

252639935,B181A0BFEA6EEAA1AAB“A dog has a psychological profile just like a human being,” he explained. “Every dog needs to be cuddled. They need to be scratched behind the ears. They need to be kissed. Just like humans do. You have to have that physicality, otherwise the dog will suffer and, in some instances, get physically sick from lack of contact. That’s why if you own a dog at home and they’re always pushing towards you and they’re always wanting to be by you, they need that reaffirmation of love.”

Cena’s reward for sniffing out an explosive was getting to play with a little, red, snowman-shaped toy called a Kong or retrieving a tennis ball tossed into a gathering of the squad members who showered him with affection.

“I had a backpack on me whose only contents, outside of a blanket for myself, was about 25 pounds of dog food, 15 bottles of water, and a bunch of vet supplies,” said Jeff. “That whole bag was his stuff.”

Just before Christmas, shrapnel from a bomb ripped into Cena’s chest. After a month’s recuperation at Camp Leatherneck, he and Jeff were back in action finding IEDs embedded in walls, trees and on the ground. With his deployment over in April 2010, Jeff returned to his Marine Corps base in North Carolina with Cena, who would soon get sent back with a new handler. Jeff never had a chance to say a final good-bye. The handlers and their dogs were abruptly and unknowingly separated from one another on the bus ride to the base.

“I think the reason that they did that to us was to try and sever the emotional attachment,” said Jeff. “But what they don’t understand is that it’s a very intimate emotional relationship. You spend three months getting shot at with this dog next to your side. You lose friends with this dog by you. I personally lost a few good friends of mine and Cena was the one who was there for it. I would cry while holding him. He was always right there.”

Rarely do handlers get the chance to reunite with their dogs. Jeff, as it turned out, would be one of the exceptions. After serving in Marines for nearly five years, he returned to Michigan and worked for a brief time in a factory. He decided to use his GI Bill to study at MCC with a goal of being a police officer, maybe even working with a K-9 unit.

“I love this college,” said Jeff, who wants to be involved with the Veterans Student Organization. “Mr. (Al) Barreto is an awesome instructor. I’m glad I picked MCC.”

Over the years, Jeff periodically contacted the Marine Corps Working Dog Division for updates on Cena. The responses were intentionally short and devoid of detail. All Jeff knew was that Cena was still alive. During one of his somber days this February, he sent an e-mail to the Division to check again on his closest war buddy. This time, he received a different e-mail. It read: “Dear Mr. DeYoung, I’d like to talk to you about adopting Cena.”

Jeff called and learned that the Division had been trying to reach him for four months. Cena, suffering from hip dysplasia, was being retired from the Marines. In two weeks, he was scheduled for adoption by a civilian family.  But that wasn’t going to happen now. Jeff and Cena would be reunited forever.

“I started to cry because it was like…Christmas,” recalled Jeff. “It’s like finding out you won the lottery or that you had a brother you never knew. I can’t put it into words.”

The American Humane Association and Mission Canine Rescue funded Cena’s flight from the South to Detroit Metro Airport. There, a phalanx of media surprised Jeff, his wife, Lindsay, and their two children. When Cena started walking down the hallway, Jeff took pause.

“I was very nervous, like being at a high school dance and about to ask a girl to dance,” he remembered. “You kind of shuffle over, not sure what to do. I started walking over, saw Cena, and ran toward him and hugged him. My fear was that he wouldn’t recognize me but he did. He went insane. It was awesome.”

Nowadays, Cena moves much slower but gets spoiled by Jeff’s young daughters with their table scraps, tennis ball tosses, and by cozying up next to him at bedtime. In November, the DeYoungs made their first-ever trip to New York City to attend the 2014 Veterans Day Parade, in which Jeff and Cena were featured on the Battle Buddies float.

“If I did nothing else in New York, I wanted to lay some flowers at Ground Zero for myself and my friends,” said Jeff. “That was our main reason for enlisting in the first place.”

Jeff, like thousands of Americans, answered the call to serve his nation. While the battles for many of them have ended, the memories of those who paid the ultimate sacrifice will never die. Next February, when Jeff’s mind finds its way, as it always does, to friends lost, he’ll have Cena by his side once again to help ease the pain.