Being separated from your friends and family and deployed directly to a war zone for an extended period is extremely challenging – but unfortunately, that is the reality faced by thousands of members of the Armed Forces across the world. Sometimes, the bonds that are formed in those horrifying situations are strong enough to last a lifetime – even if that bond is between a man and his dog. That was the case for Joe Steenbeke and his working dog Tess, who protected her owner from bombs daily for over a year in Afghanistan. When Joe returned to the US, and they were separated with barely a chance even to say goodbye, it seemed as though they would never see each other again. Joe, now an army veteran in Indiana, found adjusting back to civilian life challenging, which was magnified by the loss of Tess. Embarking on what would become a six-year battle, Joe and his wife Stephanie set out to reunite the pair – don’t miss this heart-warming story of two best friends finding their way back to one another.
The Day That Changed the World
In September 2001, nearly 3,000 people were killed in the atrocious 9/11 terrorist attacks in New York. At the time, a group called the Taliban controlled most of Afghanistan but allowed a militant Sunni Islamist organization called al-Qaeda to have training camps there.
The US believed that a man called Osama Bin Laden – who was the head of Al-Qaeda – was responsible for these attacks. There was a lot of international pressure on the Afghan leaders to hand over Osama Bin Laden. When the Taliban didn’t do this, the United States decided they would use their armed forces.
US War on Terror
In October 2001, the US began bombing Afghanistan, targeting Bin Laden’s al-Qaeda fighters as well as the Taliban. The US Government deployed US soldiers to Afghanistan with the aim of dismantling al-Qaeda and denying the organization a safe base of operations by removing the Taliban from power.
The Taliban declined to extradite Bin Laden unless they were given what they deemed to be “convincing evidence” of his involvement in the 9/11 attacks, ignoring demands to shut down terrorist bases and hand over other terrorist suspects. And so, the long US war in Afghanistan began.
Involving a Man from Indiana
Thousands of US soldiers have been deployed to Afghanistan over the years in what were dangerous and harrowing missions. This was the case for one particular soldier from Culver, Indiana, named Joe Steenbeke, who went to Afghanistan in 2012 to serve as a Tactical Explosive Detective Dog (TEDD) handler.
In short, his job was to disarm bonds, thereby securing the safety of the other soldiers in the area. However, this wasn’t possible without the aid of a dog that was trained specially to sniff out the bombs and other dangerous material. Joe needed a partner.
The Canine Army Heros
Hundreds of dogs have been sent to Afghanistan by the US since the start of the war to serve alongside the soldiers there. According to a Bloomberg article in August 2017, roughly 1,600 Military War Dogs – as they’re called – were either in the field or helping recovering veterans.
This equates to approximately one dog for every three US soldiers currently in Afghanistan. With the sheer volume of improvised explosive devices – bombs constructed and developed in ways other than in conventional military action – dogs were critical in the effort to identify and disarm them.
Making or Breaking the Experience
Joe knew that, once he arrived in Afghanistan, his term of service would be difficult, testing, and even harrowing at times, so it was incredibly important to him that the dog his superiors assigned to him with was one with whom he felt a strong connection.
After all, he’d have to spend almost every waking minute with this animal – and it was effectively responsible for his life – so there would have to be mutual respect and trust between the two. Joe would have to wait and see and hope for the best.
The Dog that Changed His Life
Immediately, he had a dog assigned to him: Tess, a Belgian Malinois – a medium-to-large breed of dog, sometimes classified as a variety of the Belgian Shepherd dog rather than as a separate breed. They’re used as working dogs in the military and police throughout the world.
Joe later recalled his immediate reaction: “I was like what is her deal? What is her name? They were like ‘That is Tess. She is a sassy one.’ I was like ‘Well that just might work.’” It was clear that this could be a great pairing from the start.
A Loyal and Trusty Partner
Indeed, the connection was instant, as Joe describes: “So we opened the kennel, and she came running out and jumped up, and I caught her, and I was like ‘This will work.’” Joe had found his loyal and trusty partner.
And Tess felt the same way too – the “sass” that Joe had been warned of was nothing to consider a problem, and she was extremely responsive to her new handler immediately. This was to be the start of an incredibly tight bond.
Dream Team Living a Nightmare
The two formed a strong team – it was Tess’ job to sniff out the bombs and Joe’s job to disarm them. As Joe’s wife, Stephanie, later disclosed: “When he was deployed, Joe never had an actual unit. He and Tess were it. He didn’t have an actual unit. He didn’t have anybody that was with him all the time except her.”
Joe agrees. “With bullets flying, mortars, rockets, bombs, everything else. At the end of the day I had her, and she had me, and that was it,” he says. He was so close to Tess, he even got her ID number tattooed on his arm.
The Worst Reality Check
Life in Afghanistan was by no means easy or pleasant, and Joe had to see and deal with things that were horrifying. Through this – away from his friends and family at home – Tess was by his side, helping him through the ordeal.
“The other K9 handler actually got blown up by an IED,” Joe recalls. “You go long enough without finding any, you think you’re just going on a walk. Then all the sudden your buddy gets blown up, and it certainly makes it real. That is for sure.”
Finding Comfort from an Unlikely Source
Seeing such horrific scenes is hugely damaging to one’s mental health – and when the scenes involve your friends, this is magnified. Joe’s experiences in Afghanistan took their toll, especially while he was so far away from family and friends, and the comfort of his own home.
Through it all, by his side, Tess was there. She, too, had witnessed the horrors of war – and even though she was a dog and of course could not communicate in the same way as a human, she was also affected by what she’d witnessed, and Joe felt there was a level of understanding as to how he felt.
The Bond is Broken
Joe and Tess worked together, side by side, for almost a year and developed a powerful bond with one another. They barely spent a minute apart. Then, in February 2013, everything changed for both of them.
Joe’s term had ended, and he was due to return to the US. Heartbreakingly, he was forced to say goodbye to her in the space of minutes. “The last time I saw her was right when we touched down back in America from our deployment,” he said. “And I got five minutes to say goodbye to her.”
Keeping Emotions in Check
Joe recalls the heart-breaking moment: “So the plane lands by our base, and somebody comes walking on and told us that we had five minutes to say goodbye to our dogs. It is kind of hard to put it into words.”
“You can imagine a group of 20 to 25 men done with war, excited to go home, and they just get told their best friend is gone in five minutes. That is all they get. I just remember, walking around thinking it wasn’t real. Just loving up on her as best I could for five minutes handing the leash off. That was the last time I saw her.”
Returning to Normal Life
Joe returned to his home in Indiana, where his wife, Stephanie, had been waiting for him. As with many army veterans, Joe found it extremely difficult to adjust back to normal life in the US and forget the atrocities that he had witnessed in Afghanistan.
He was also missing Tess – a lot. His best friend that he had spent every minute of the day with had suddenly gone, and he knew very little about what she was doing now. But things were about to get even worse for Joe.
Plagued by Bad Memories
Joe developed post-traumatic stress disorder – also known as PTSD – which began to plague him and put a strain on his relationship with Stephanie. He began to yearn for the company of Tess – the one companion that had been through the war with him and with whom he had developed a lasting bond.
“It feels like I am not whole because I don’t have her around to lean on. She doesn’t have me to lean on. It makes it hard when bad memories come back,” he said at the time. The situation was not helping his mental health at all.
Joining the Connecticut National Guard
Tess, meanwhile, had been sent to serve with the Connecticut National Guard, which had a working military dog program. Although she was relatively old for a working dog, her high level of intelligence and aptitude for the job meant she was kept in service – plus, she was still fighting fit.
This, in itself, had – in hindsight – been part of the problem. Had Tess being visibly aging and showing signs of slowing down mentally, perhaps Joe would have been given the option to adopt her if there had been no way she could continue her service in the Armed Forces.
A Permanent, Tattooed Reminder
Since their sad farewell on his return to the US, Joe had neither seen nor heard any news of Tess and could only wonder what she was now doing. Still, the tattoo of her ID number on his arm was a daily reminder of the friend he had lost.
Stephanie was beginning to worry increasingly about her husband, who she could see was suffering from PTSD and finding it hard to adjust to life back at home. After hearing Joe talk about Jess, she wondered whether she might be the key to helping Joe transition.
Making the Right Decision
There was just one potential issue, however – Stephanie had never met Tess before. How could she be sure that this dog would fit into their family – or even be friendly to other people? Plus, Stephanie and Joe wanted to start a family at some point, so she had to consider whether Tess would be suitable to have around children.
But Joe wasn’t getting any better – and he wasn’t missing Tess any less. Surely Stephanie could trust Joe’s judgment that Tess was a fantastic dog? Finally, she made up her mind as to what she would do. Now, she just had to figure out how.
Still Serving Her Time
Stephanie began the process of locating Tess and then adopting her. This was to take years – and there were many times along the way that it seemed as though it would be impossible. Meanwhile, Joe’s PTSD was getting worse, and Stephanie was becoming increasingly worried.
The main issue lay in the fact that Tess was still a working dog, sniffing out bombs – this time with the Connecticut National Guard. Had she already been retired, it probably would have been easier. However, it looked like the Steenebekes would have to wait until she was out of service.
A New Day Has Come
After a long, six-year battle – during which there were many times it seemed as though there was no chance of Tess ever being reunited with Joe – the wait was over. Tess could be adopted and taken to Indiana to start her life with the Steenbekes!
US Republican Jackie Walorski – who had heard of the cause and done as much as possible to help – called Joe on 23 January to inform him that he could adopt Tess. It was a momentous and emotional occasion, and Stephanie knew all her hard work had been worth it.
A Birthday to Remember
Finally, on 1 February – ironically, Tess’ 11th birthday – the adoption papers were finalized, and Stephanie officially went to Newtown, Connecticut, to bring Tess to her new home in Culver, Indiana. A reunion was on the cards – and there was no doubt that it would be an emotional one.
By the time the reunion came around, Tess and Joe had not seen each other for six whole years – and some people wondered whether it would be an anti-climax, as there was a chance Tess wouldn’t recognize Joe or the bond wouldn’t be as strong anymore. Joe, however, knew that wouldn’t be the case.
Like No Time Had Passed
As soon as Tess was let out of the kennel, it was clear she knew precisely who Joe was – and she was obviously ecstatic to be reunited with him. “She pulled right toward me, and I just dropped down to a knee, and she just jumped right up and started loving on me like it had been 30 minutes (since I had last seen her),” Joe described.
Stephanie agreed: “I’d heard plenty of stories about her but as soon as they brought her out … as soon as I saw her, I started crying, and she just came right to him. Just beelined right to him.”
A Bond That Transcends Time
The initial reunion had been a complete success – not that Stephanie or Joe had been remotely worried about it. Emotions were running high, and Joe couldn’t wait to get his dog settled into his home. He now felt as though he had everything he needed.
And it was like nothing had changed at all regarding his relationship with Tess – she still felt like his dog. “It feels like it’s been a lifetime, but it also feels like it was just yesterday that I said goodbye to her,” he said.
Taking the Next Step
However, both Joe and Stephanie knew the reunion was far from complete. Sure, Tess was happy to see Joe again, but she hadn’t even begun to try to settle into their house and her new surroundings – and who knew whether she’d be able to?
Although everyone tried to remain positive, there was still that niggling feeling of doubt in the back of Stephanie’s mind. Surely she hadn’t spent years of her life trying to make this happen, just for all the plans to fall through at the last minute?
Easing into the Life of Retirement
And there was one more important issue to consider – Tess had been a working military dog for her entire life. She was selected as a young puppy for the job, passed initial behavioral assessments and tests, and was given vigorous training before being deployed to Afghanistan to work.
Since then, she’d continued her service to the Armed Forces with the Connecticut National Guard in their working military dog program. No one knew whether it was realistic to expect her to suddenly stop and settle into a life of retirement halfway across the country.
Like It’s Always Been Home
There was no need to worry, though. As soon as Tess entered Joe and Stephanie’s home, they knew it was meant to be. There was no hesitation whatsoever, and Tess was obviously very relaxed in her surroundings with her new owners.
“Honestly, it’s like she’s always been with us. She came right in the house last night, she picked out a toy, she picked a bed, and she slept all night. It’s like she’s been here forever. She’s just fit right in,” Stephanie said.
From Now Until Forever
Needless to say, Joe was over the moon to have his dog back. “It’s been six years since I’ve had her and honestly, looking at her right now, it feels like it’s been a lifetime,” he said, hardly able to believe his eyes.
Looking to the future, he emotionally declared: “I know that she’s going to be in a great home that loves her from now until forever. I’m just happy to have her back.” There was no denying that Stephanie’s decision to pursue the adoption was the right one.
Graying Around the Edges
So, were there any differences at all regarding the relationship between Joe and Tess? None at all. According to Joe, the only difference he noticed at all was that Tess’ muzzle had turned a little gray – but it had been six whole years, after all, and Tess wasn’t getting any younger!
Joe was happy to report that Tess was the same pup he remembers from years ago, still jumping up on his chest to give him kisses. Clearly, the bond they had formed all those years ago in Afghanistan was strong enough to transcend time.
Transitioning into Civilian Life
A couple of days after the tearful reunion, the new family of three had begun to settle into a routine, as Tess was apparently already at home in her new surroundings. However, the transition from a working military dog to a retired lady of leisure wasn’t entirely straightforward!
“She’s only been retired for two days now,” Joe said. “Of course, she’s going to think she’s still working. Just like veterans that have to transition into civilian life. If you can call it that for her.”
All About the Toys
However, Joe and Stephanie were there to stimulate her senses while gently easing her into retirement, and it wasn’t long before Tess had made the transition without even knowing it! Instead of sniffing for bombs, she was now sniffing for treats, and life was remarkably better for the Belgian Malinois.
“She’s all about having toys,” Steenbeke said, smiling down at the dog he had spent years trying to reunite with. Now he had her back, he intended to spoil her as much as possible – and Tess was dutifully enjoying the attention!
Old Habits Die Hard
Amazingly, some things had stayed the same between Joe and Tess. Little habits and endearing mannerisms had remained the same, and that was part of what made this incredible bond between man and dog so strong after so many years apart.
“She still likes chewing on my thumbs,” he said. “Just the way she cuddles and plays with her toys and everything like that. On the way over here, she actually destroyed four tennis balls, so she still has that going for her.” Some things never change, apparently!
Feeling an Immediate Ease
Immediately, Stephanie noticed that Joe’s PTSD was improving – she even claimed that he was sleeping better as a direct result of Tess being back in his life. Amazingly, Joe agreed with his wife, showing just how vital Tess had been to him.
“So, I think that was part of the big reason I pushed so hard to get her back,” Stephanie said.
It’s still doesn’t feel real. I really, just can’t believe that she’s still here.” It was clear that Tess had changed both their lives for the better.
Something Worth Fighting For
Joe’s PTSD continued to improve – something he still attributed to Tess. “There’s a little piece of me that I didn’t really ever think that I’d get back,” he said. “But it’s something that my wife fought really hard for. It’s nice to have that little piece back I didn’t expect.”
Not only was he sleeping better, but walking Tess now gave him a reason to get ready and go out of the house – something he had been struggling with previously. The effects were nothing but positive – and the whole family was ecstatic.
Looking Forward to the Future
Now, Joe and Stephanie are looking to the future. Incredibly, they’re now expecting a baby, so they will soon be a family of four! They can’t wait to welcome the new addition to the family and have every faith that Tess will be as good with the baby as she is with other people.
As for their beloved dog, Joe says: “We’re just looking forward to giving her a good retirement life. She’s worked so hard her entire life now she gets to sit back and have fun and live like an eccentric billionaire.”
A List of Acknowledgments
But Joe and Stephanie couldn’t have brought Tess back to Indiana by themselves – and they know they have a lot of people to thank for their happiness. Friends, family, politicians, and news stations assisted them in achieving their goal – and they’re thankful to every single one of them.
“There are so many people who have helped us along the way that we will never be able to thank,” Stephanie says. “That upsets me because I want everybody to know how important this really is to us.”
Trying to Attract Worldwide Attention
Over the years that Joe and Stephanie campaigned to get Tess, they created a numerous amount of social media pages to attract attention and build momentum behind their cause. The response had astounded them, and they were genuinely humbled.
Thousands of people had shared their story with the aim of helping the couple fulfill their dream. It was, perhaps, the traction this gained that propelled the story nationwide, attracting the attention of news stations and politicians alike.
Joining Two American Heroes
One such person was Republican Jackie Walorski, who played a crucial role in the family reunion. The congresswoman and her staff corresponded with various military generals after receiving a letter from Stephanie in 2018.
“I hope the folks in our district – you know, from the smallest to the oldest – understand that there’s nothing we won’t do to help a veteran, but more importantly, to be able to join two American heroes together and what it means for our district, our state, and our nation,” expressed Rep. Jackie Walorski. “I just think it’s a story that needs to be told: goodness does prevail.”
Devoting Time to the Cause
On that note, when he’s not concentrating on his family, Joe now spends much of his time working with charities that try to facilitate reunions between retired military dogs and their old owners who are now army veterans.
It would seem that Joe was not alone in his dilemma – there is an astonishingly high number of army veterans that have been separated unwillingly from their canine partners. And many are suffering terribly because of it – just like Joe was.
A Change in Thinking
For years, military dogs were classified as “equipment,” with thousands being disposed of or left overseas. A charity called American Humane worked with the US Congress to require that military working dogs be brought back to the US upon retirement and that their handlers and their families be given first rights of adoption.
Unfortunately, these canine veterans are still sometimes separated from their human counterparts, who cared for and fought alongside them on the battlefield. A reunion requires years of fighting, an extensive amount of paperwork, and often a large sum of money.
The Mission of American Humane
However, American Humane is committed to reuniting these retired military hero dogs with their former handlers. After all, they too put their life on the line for their country, and many US soldiers are alive today thanks to them.
In their efforts to ensure that no great partnerships are split up, American Humane strives to provide everything necessary for the facilitation of a reunion between veteran and dog. This includes emotional, legal, admin, and even financial support.
The Benefits Are Immeasurable
They even help raise funds to pay for the dogs’ transport home so that the reunion can take place, and the dogs can enjoy the peace and freedom they deserve after a lifetime of unwavering service.
“The benefits to both soldier and dog are immeasurable, and we can make sure that the K-9 veterans who served our country receive the hero’s welcome, dignified retirement, and loving, forever home they so richly deserve.” American Human states.