A VISIT TO CHOPPER AND BRETT
Southeastern California, 2010
The dog lay in the shade of a palm tree, his head up and his ears at attention. He was scanning the desert scrubland, vigilant, the muscles beneath the heavy fur of his flanks taut and ready. Even from behind him, I could see his tongue lolling out of the side of his mouth, flopping like a pink fish.
“Chopper,” the man beside me said.
The dog turned to look at us, his expression keenly alert, his dark eyes intent.
The dog sprang to his feet and made his way across the dusty yard. Under other circumstances, I might have tensed up at the sight of a 75-pound package of fierce determination approaching. However, I could see a very tiny softening of the muscles around his eyes as he neared us and recognition dawned in them. He knew who I was.
He also knew not to approach me first, even though the two of us had spent the first few months of his life in the United States together. As commanded, he came up to Brett, his former SEAL team handler. He sat down alongside the man he served with on dozens of dangerous missions for six years. Now they were living on a small ranch outside Ranchita, California. Brett and Chopper had ceased being on active military duty only three months earlier, but they both would have chafed at being called “retirees.”
Chopper sat, still very much at attention, until Brett told him it was okay. Then Chopper looked at me, and I gave his head a few rubs with the flat of my hand. I ran my hand down his shoulder and along his rib cage. He was still in fine fighting form, but I noticed that he relaxed a bit and leaned into me. I smiled at this sign of affection and appreciation for the attention I was giving him.
I noticed that the fur around Chopper’s muzzle and eyes had lightened a bit since I’d last seen him. It was no longer the deep ebony that had glowed like a spit-polished dress boot. The slight unevenness to the side of one of his large ears was still there, though. Some scuffle as a pup in his kennel outside of Tilburg in the Netherlands had left him with an identifying mark. In my mind it was never a flaw. Rather, it was a mark of distinction.
“He’s doing good,” I said to Brett.
“Always. He’s a good ol’ boy,” said Brett. He pushed his sunglasses up and squinted into the distance. “He likes it here. Looks a little like the sandbox, but there’s a lot less action. I thought we’d both miss it, but we don’t at all.” Brett had spent more than a dozen years as a West Coast SEAL team member, the last of his time as a handler working with Chopper.
Having served my own time as a SEAL team member, I knew exactly what Brett meant. The transition from active duty to civilian life takes time for both servicemen and military working dogs (MWDs). Given my experience as a trainer of both Navy SEAL dogs and their handlers, I also understood quite a lot about the deep bond that the two had formed and would share for the rest of Chopper’s life.
My trip to visit Chopper and Brett wasn’t just a social call. It was a part of a responsibility I take very seriously. I founded a nonprofit organization, the Warrior Dog Foundation, to make certain that retired MWDs are able to live out the remainder of their lives in a positive environment. Though I knew that Chopper was well cared for, I still wanted to check in on him, just like I do with fellow members of SEAL Team Three, or members of other SEAL teams I’ve come to know in my new role. Whether you’re a canine or a human, if you’ve been a SEAL team member that means you’re a brother, and we are all our brothers’ keepers for life.
Visiting Chopper and Brett was a privilege and an honor, and, most importantly, it was a great pleasure to see them still together.
* * *
In most ways, Chopper is still more fit and more capable than 90 percent of the dogs in this country. Even so, that isn’t good enough for the kind of demands a military dog has to meet downrange in places like Afghanistan. Not only is the work extremely demanding, but also the stakes are so high that anything less than the absolute best is not acceptable. It wasn’t a question of heart. Chopper still has the drive and determination, but the inevitable toll of age and years of stress has started to creep in.
I knelt down alongside Chopper and draped my arm around him, “Braafy,” I said. It always amazed me that something as simple as that short statement of approval could mean so much to a dog that, over the years, teams like Brett and Chopper had developed such a bond of trust that the dog would willingly and gladly place himself in positions of peril.
A few minutes later, Brett and I sat down on the deck he’d recently built. Chopper resumed his perimeter position in the shade. Brett told me a little bit about the enclosure he had built out of split rail and wire. Then he nodded out past the line of post holes that he’d dug and the piles of dirt like overturned funnels flanking them.
“I’m not sure if I’m keeping the coyotes from getting in or Chopper from getting out,” he said. “I’m likely doing those varmints a favor either way. Chopper would give them more than they bargained for, no doubt.” Brett’s voice still had a mild twang that revealed his Smoky Mountain roots.
Inevitably, our talk turned to war stories and to stories of Brett’s work with Chopper. Brett recalled one incident, while he and Chopper were still training together, that forged his bond with the dog.
“That time you took us out on that training exercise doing the house-to-house maneuvers.” Brett shook his head and smiled. “He got hold of that target and I thought I was going to have to choke him out to get him to release it.”
“They do like to bite,” I said flatly, underscoring my understatement. “And Chopper does more than most.”
“I remember looking him in the eye,” said Brett, “and neither of us was willing to give in. Then it dawned on that dog that he was the one who was going to have to give in, and it was on account of me, and not because he wanted to. Then I knew I had him.”
Brett said he believed that was the moment when he and Chopper came to truly understand one another. “I think of it this way,” he said. “My daddy raised me to fear and respect him, and I did. But with how you conducted the training, Chopper obeyed me because he got the idea that it was the right thing to do and not because he was afraid of me.” Brett paused, then said, “Never in my life would I have thought a dog could communicate so much with just a look and his posture.”
“It doesn’t always happen,” I said, “but when it does, it almost defies explanation.”
“Hard work and love,” Brett added, summing it up pretty nicely, I thought. “Hey, Bud,” he said gently to the dog. Chopper turned to look at Brett, his eyes and ears alert. Brett smiled and said, “Good boy.”
* * *
Brett reached into a wooden planter on the picnic table and pulled out a tennis ball. Then he let out a soft whistle. Chopper stood and assumed the position, his ears tilting forward and pointing heavenward, his expression intent. Brett reared back and fired the tennis ball over the enclosure’s fence and into the lot beyond. I watched the ball as it arced and then bounced wildly, and then I followed Brett’s gaze from the ball’s landing zone to the dog, who no longer sat obscured in shadow but was in the warm glow of the setting sun.
“Okay,” Brett said at last.
Like a tightly pulled bow and arrow finally being released, Chopper sprang out across the lot, kicking up dust. At the fence he didn’t hesitate but easily bounded over the top rail, looking like a champion horse at a jumping contest. I had to laugh as, in his eagerness, when Chopper stooped to clamp down on the ball his front legs splayed out while his rear ones kept churning, and he nearly tumbled over.
His prize captured, Chopper trotted back, munching on the ball, his mouth twisted into a kind of silly, giddy grin. He hopped the fence again and came onto the deck to show us what he’d managed to capture. He sat at Brett’s feet, then lowered himself into a relaxed, paws-crossed lie-down, still working on the tennis ball.
Brett looked at me half embarrassed, half pleased. “That’s one thing I let him do now,” he said.
I nodded. I knew as well as anyone that, in training, Chopper would have been told to drop the ball fairly quickly at his handler’s feet. He wouldn’t get the reward of gnawing on it. Brett stroked Chopper’s head, working his fingers around the backs of his ears as Chopper cocked his head in pleasure.
Finally, Brett said, “Los,” and Chopper released the ball. Brett picked it up and offered it to me. I took one look at the spit-frothed ball and declined.
Laughing, I said to Brett, as he stood to throw another one for Chopper, “Wilson. U.S. Open Hard Court. You’ve got expensive tastes.”
Settling back into his seat after letting Chopper go bounding off, Brett grinned with satisfaction and said, “Nothing but the best for my boy. He deserves it.”
I couldn’t agree more.
Copyright © 2013 by Michael Ritland