Up at 5 a.m., retired Staff Sgt. Matthew Bessler often speaks his first words of the day to his dog, Mike, who lives with him now in Powell, Wyoming, and who has deployed with him twice to Iraq.
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Bessler served as an Army Ranger and former Special Forces Engineer with the canine tactical team from 10th Special Forces Group (Airborne) out of Fort Carson, Colorado. Mike, a Belgian Malinois, served as a former Special Operations Forces, or SOF, multipurpose canine.
During two of Bessler’s six tours in Iraq, Mike stood daily by his side. They served about 16 months together overall. Their work earned the duo two Bronze Stars – one of the military’s highest accolades.
When they returned to Colorado, Bessler said he didn’t yet recognize the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, on either himself or his four-legged partner. He didn’t recognize the effects of PTSD on their performance.
“I thought I was normal. I thought Mike was normal,” Bessler said over the phone, with Mike’s head at his feet. “I needed to recognize [we weren’t], but I never could. You think you’re fine.”
Bessler, now 43, joined the Army at 19. He’s been deployed six times to Iraq and served in Haiti and Somalia. He met Mike for the first time at a military working dog kennel, right before their first deployment together. His first thought upon seeing the Belgian Malinois: “what the hell did I get myself into?”
As an SOF multipurpose canine, Mike was trained to detect explosives, perform patrols and track adversaries. Bessler’s job was to read the dog’s body language and respond quickly to neutralize any threats. The link between dog and handler had to be seamless.
“You have to learn to speak ‘doganese,'” Bessler said. “If you can’t get along with the dog and can’t work the dog, you can’t find bombs in Baghdad.”
The duo fell into an easy rhythm overseas. They were inseparable as they tracked the enemy, sniffed out improvised explosive devices and traveled with other special forces detachments. Even as everything else changed, it was always Bessler and Mike.
“I wasn’t going to allow other people to say dogs don’t work,” Bessler said. “I was proud to be a dog handler, who could still do my required MOS [military occupational specialty] skill set as well as handle a dog.”
Until one day Mike stopped sniffing for explosives.
Bessler took Mike to the military veterinarian in Baghdad, who tried low doses of Prozac to calm the dog’s anxiety, but Mike continued to be easily distracted and anxious in the chaos that is a combat zone.
In March 2010, Bessler flew back to Colorado with Mike at his feet. It wasn’t until transitioning out of the Army that Bessler realized Mike wasn’t the only one affected by the war.
In addition to PTSD, Bessler was diagnosed with a traumatic brain injury. The effects of TBI, including seizures, memory loss, headaches, vestibular, and vision problems, augment the effects of PTSD. In his first months in Colorado, Bessler found himself struggling to find a “new normal.”
“At that point you get a fever. You just want to go back again. It becomes normal for you to be over there worrying about whether a mortar is going to hit you,” Bessler said.
While seeking help for his TBI and PTSD, Bessler visited Mike nearly every day at the kennel. The two went running together and played fetch, but neither dog nor owner could ignore the strain PTSD had placed on both of their lives. Mike was refusing to eat, and Bessler struggled with nightmares, sleep apnea and seizures.
When the kennel master asked if Bessler wanted to adopt Mike, he said yes, despite knowing there wasn’t a “happily ever after” planned.
Mike’s medical care cost Bessler nearly $12,000 while his own rehabilitation and physical therapy was nearly $6,000 in out-of-pocket expenses. Mike has nightmares so bad he shakes in his sleep, and cannot be left alone during storms, Bessler said.
And Bessler himself struggles with anxiety. After his divorce, he left Fountain, Colorado, with its nearly 30,000 people, for the serenity of Powell, Wyoming – a city of less than 6,500.
Today, Bessler wakes up before dawn and has coffee at a local café that his father, Leo Bessler, opens at 3:45 a.m. every morning. Sometimes they don’t talk, sometimes they just say hi. This quiet solitude is a necessity for Bessler, as he works to prevail physically and mentally.
Having Mike beside him, a nonjudgmental force with an intrinsic understanding of what “a bad day” looks like, is a great solace, Bessler said.
“I have this burden for the rest of my life, but I have someone to remind me that it’s going to be alright because he has the same thing,” Bessler said.
Medically retired, both Mike and Bessler are enjoying a life, where they can “fly by the seat of their pants.” Mike is now joined by Ziva, a black Labrador puppy. The trio have full days that include appointments with additional specialists intermixed with leisurely walks, camping and fishing trips or whatever makes today better than yesterday.
“You can’t lock all the doors, pull all the curtains and turn off all the lights. You have to turn on a light, even just one light,” said Bessler, with the sound of Mike’s tail wagging in the background.
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