A Life of Service
By Senior Airman Matthew Gilmore, 374th Airlift Wing Public Affairs
/ Published October 29, 2019
YOKOTA AIR BASE, Japan -- A new leash hangs by the door ready to go on long walks, toys spread out across the home left exactly where they were last played with, a Tempur-Pedic memory foam bed in the corner to nap in when the eyes get heavy, and a family to provide a life’s worth of love. This isn’t life in the kennels anymore, this is retirement after a life’s worth of service.
For the recently retired and adopted Topa, a military working dog specializing in patrol and explosives detection, assigned to the 374th Airlift Wing at Yokota Air Base, Japan, this is home.
“Topa has more than earned his place on the couch for the rest of his life,” said Staff Sgt. Cody Nickell, 374th Security Forces Squadron military working dog handler, Topa’s previous handler, and Topa’s new adopted home. “Having been lucky enough to have been Topa’s handler for the past two years, when I look into that boy’s eyes I know he’s given everything he has to the mission and he has done so since the day he began working as a military working dog.”
For Topa, like all U.S. Air Force military working dogs, that career began at Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland, Texas in 2011 where he underwent 6 months of rigorous training to master the bite and detection skills necessary for him to be an outstanding member of any team. Upon completing his initial course, in April of 2012, Topa was assigned to Yokota AB where he would go on to serve for seven years before being medically retired.
“In those seven years, Topa has supported missions across Japan, India, Laos, Myanmar, Guam and Singapore, providing the detection skills needed to ensure the safety of locations for the President of the United States, Vice President of the United States, and the Secretary of Defense,” said Nickell. “When Topa wasn’t travelling to support other missions, he was right here at Yokota training and protecting our installation right by my side.
“That in itself is just a rough lifestyle for a dog to maintain for so long. We patrol and train together out there in the elements and our dogs only know one speed, full speed ahead. Whether it is up and over a fence or into a car, they only know full speed. That in tandem with the bite work that comes along with being a patrol dog adds an extra level of stress to their bodies and it adds up.”
For Topa, the day in and day out culminated in the formation of excess bone along the spine that made it no longer comfortable for him to continue serving. While the day to day mission had taken a toll on Topa’s body, the days of training alongside his handler also left him with a bond that would carry over into life after the Air Force.
“It is no secret that handlers form incredibly strong relationships with their dogs,” said Tech. Sgt. Matthew Clark, 374th SFS kennel master. “Dogs just innately are so driven and loyal and when we match that up with them focusing on the mission with their handler, you can just see it in how they look at their handlers, the depth of that relationship is hard to even put into words.
“That is exactly the reason that handlers tend to be given priority when it comes to the adoption process and finding our animals a home to live out the rest of their lives. When the time came, I could see what SSgt. Nickell meant to Topa and it was easy to see that Topa would be cared for and have the retirement he deserved.”
With his future home decided, Topa has since settled in with SSgt. Nickell and his wife Monikka. Sporting a “pet me” collar, a sharp contrast to the more serious collars worn by active working dogs, the collar is in a way a symbol of Topa’s new life.
“I love that dog,” said Nickell. “I look at him and I know I’m his world and he is also mine. The best thing is that he is also now my family’s world so we have even more love to give him.
“Even with all of our love, retirement isn’t always easy for him. He sees me put on the uniform every day and he just gets so excited to go out and do the mission we carried out together for two years. It’s hard because while I know he wants to come with me, I always have to remind him that he’s done his job and it’s time for him to be a good boy at home napping on the couch.
“Topa has earned that right and so much more. Just like not all heroes wear capes, not everyone that serves raised their right hand to do so, Topa is proof of that.”