A highly unusual memorial and burial, in the small rural farming town of Powell, Wyoming, was held Wednesday to celebrate and lay to rest a soldier.
This soldier loved chasing tennis balls and chewing on them, his reward for a job well done in the war zone. In fact, whenever he discovered anything round and relatively soft, he was giddy. He served two harrowing tours of duty in Iraq with distinction and was promoted to major when he retired from an Army special operations group.
The military had named him K-9 Mike 5 #07-257, but he came to be known as “Major Mike,” or Michael, as his war and peacetime partner, retired Army ranger Matthew Bessler, liked to call him.
After returning from Iraq with Mike in 2010, Bessler adopted the dog, a Belgian Malinois and had him trained for a new job: a service dog that, for the past several years, had instinctively detected and eased the anxiety and depression in his human counterpart.
That was until last month, when Mike was shot to death by a bicyclist who said the dog was attacking him. The bicyclist — who is a veteran himself, honorably discharged from the Army, authorities said —insisted he had no intention of killing Mike, only disabling him so he could ride away.
The dog’s death shattered Bessler’s delicate world, as he and the dog were both recovering from post-traumatic stress, and drew worldwide attention.
Bessler, who wore his full Army dress uniform and green beret Wednesday, holding Mike’s brown leather leash close, said that while the whole thing was a “blur,” one highlight came during the 21-gun salute by the Powell Veterans Honor Guard. A friend of Bessler’s, also an Army ranger, brought a dog, Gizmo, also a Belgian Malinois. As the first shot was fired, Gizmo barked.
“I swear to God it was Michael’s bark and that helped me,” Bessler said shortly after the ceremony. “He’s in a good place.”
About 100 people attended the services, according to Jess Campbell, a friend of Bessler’s who organized the fundraising campaign and, with the help of a local reverend, the details of the memorial and burial service. The cemetery service also included the military’s bugle call “Taps,” and a member of the Guard presented Bessler, as he wept, with an American flag, one of the most emotional moments of the day.
The earlier memorial service was held in an auditorium of the local college, where five projectors beamed photographs of Mike and Bessler, and some videos of their training together in 2007, onto screens around the room. Many of Bessler’s favorite songs, including “One” and “Ragged Old Flag,” by Johnny Cash; “Travelin’ Soldier” by the Dixie Chicks; and “Guide You Home,” by Sugarland accompanied the display of pictures.
Bessler spoke briefly about Mike at the memorial service, reciting 11 words he associated with his dog: “loyal, compassionate, hero, attentive, courageous, intelligent, personable, brave, dedicated, resilient, ball.”
Not long after Mike’s death, Bessler’s friends began organizing a fundraising campaign to cover the costs of the funeral. Meanwhile, Bessler was inundated with cards, offers of expensive purebred German shepherd and Belgian Malinois puppies as gifts, other new service dogs and thousands of messages of support on social media and news sites.
According to the U.S. War Dog Association, while individual military units may hold tributes for dogs lost in battle, Major Mike’s public funeral may be only the second of its kind in modern history. A dog that served in Iraq was buried with military honors last year in Michigan.
The local sheriff’s department concluded in an investigation completed late last week that the bicyclist, who said he had a revolver holstered to his bike so he could shoot deadly rattlesnakes in the area, believed he was defending his life and violated no laws. Bessler, 43, is contesting several aspects of the investigation’s findings.
In a news release, the Park County sheriff, Scott Steward, said, “This was a tragic situation for all those involved,” adding, “there are no winners here, only losers.”
The Army does not provide retired military working dogs with the same burial honors it does soldiers and veterans, although Bessler said he hoped Mike’s death would change that.
Mike’s headstone will be next to the plot Bessler has reserved for himself.
More photos from the funeral:
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