Mike served his country as a bomb sniffing canine on two tours in Iraq with his handler Mathew Bessler who earned two Bronze stars.
Together they survived and returned home to Wyoming for a relaxed life of hunting and enjoying the outdoors only to have Mike fall to tragedy.
Mike was fatally shot by a 59-year-old man on a bicycle near Bessler’s property, according to the Billings Gazette. The cyclist told police that he felt threatened by Mike and has not been cited for any wrongdoing. But neighbors heard no barking, the paper reported, and the entry wounds are on the dog’s backside.
Now Bessler’s best friend is gone and so is the steadying presence that the service dog provided him.
“I raised him and trained him as a puppy, and the ability he has to sense some of the issues that I have with seizures, with my PTSD, my TBI [traumatic brain injury] and severe anxiety disorders, how he can calm me down just by him being in my presence,” Bessler, who was profiled by The Washington Post in July, told the Billings Gazette in an article published on Saturday. “He can help take the focus and help change the focus of what’s going on with me and help me calm down or relax me.”
Bessler told the Powell Tribune that he hopes his dog can be buried with military honors.
“Mike was a retired major in the Army that saved a number of lives because of his work in bomb detection and everything he had done,” he said.
Bessler is a 20-year Army vet who served six tours in Iraq with the 10th Special Forces Group out of Fort Carson, Colo. Since 2007, when the pair were joined in a Special Operations program to prepare dogs and their handlers for combat, his military career has been synonymous with Mike’s.
Because Bessler’s job demanded that he read Mike’s body language, the Army News Service noted, the bond between dog and handler “had to be seamless.” The duo became inseparable.
“You have to learn to speak ‘doganese,’” Bessler told the Army News Service. “If you can’t get along with the dog and can’t work the dog, you can’t find bombs in Baghdad.”
Each tour was intensely demanding, and during the pair’s final months in Iraq, Mike stopped sniffing for bombs and became increasingly distracted and anxious on the job, according to the Army News Service. He was eventually diagnosed with canine post-traumatic stress disorder, a condition that military veterinarians see in some dogs that were sent to Iraq and Afghanistan.
Back home in Wyoming, with the help of a daily dose of Prozac, Mike settled nicely into a new, peaceful rhythm with Bessler, who officially adopted the dog upon their return to the United States.
“He was very laid back,” Bessler told the Billings Gazette. “He never … he would lean up against people, he liked being petted, he played ball. He was happy. He was a happy-go-lucky dog.”
The peace was shattered about a week ago, when Bessler was away on a hunting trip in the Bighorn Mountains, according to the Billings Gazette. The shooting occurred around 11 a.m. Oct. 10, and, as far as Bessler is concerned, the details surrounding it raise troubling questions.
As the Powell Tribune reported:
According to the account the bicyclist gave to the Sheriff’s Office, he was turning north onto Road 5 from Lane 9 when he was “attacked” by a “German shepherd-looking dog.”
The Powell man got off of his bike and began using it as a shield, circling back and forth and keeping the bike between him and the dog, he told the Sheriff’s Office. Eventually, he was able to grab a revolver from his bicycle-mounted holster, and he shot the dog. The dog ran away and the man called 911, the Sheriff’s Office said.
“(The man) said he was genuinely in fear of his life and well-being, and the dog was ‘definitely in full attack mode and not backing down at all,’” Park County Sheriff’s Office spokesman Lance Mathess summarized of the report later compiled by a deputy.
When he shot the animal, it was about 5-10 feet away, the man said. He had not thought the single round of bird shot had killed the dog, Mathess said of the man’s account.
No other people witnessed the incident, though a neighbor heard the shot and came outside to see the dog limping away.
Bessler told the paper that Mike’s behavior according to the shooter’s account sounded nothing like the dog he had come to know and love.
Mike wasn’t territorial, he said, and would never attack a stranger. He noted that Mike didn’t wander onto the road, though he would sometimes run alongside people passing by. The dog, who had chewed on rocks to cope with his anxiety, had even worn down his teeth to “little nubs,” his owner noted. If Mike was in attack mode, why was he shot from behind, Bessler wonders. Why, he wants to know, does a cyclist have a gun mounted on his bike?
The more he looks into the cyclist’s story, he told the Tribune, the more inconsistencies he finds.
“I believe the gentleman just shot the dog on my property,” Bessler said. “I don’t buy his story.”
“If it went down the way the guy said it did, then so be it,” he added. “But I’m disgusted with the fact that the guy hasn’t even shown his face to say, ‘I’m sorry this happened.’”
Lance Mathess, a spokesman for the Park County Sheriff’s Office, told the Tribune that the man initially told authorities that he had been attacked by “a pack of dogs” but later changed his story to say that several other dogs came close to him but that only Mike was threatening.
The man “said he was genuinely in fear of his life and well-being, and the dog was ‘definitely in full attack mode and not backing down at all,’” Mathess told the Tribune.
Bessler questions this claim, as well. He told the Tribune that none of the three other dogs involved in the incident — a Yorkshire terrier, a 10-week-old pitbull and a 2-year old pitbull-Lab mix — are aggressive.
The cyclist was not injured, police said.
Perhaps most curious, Bessler told the Billings Gazette, is that a neighbor whose window was open didn’t hear barking before the gunshot.
“If the guy was actually fending the dogs off with a bicycle, [Mike] would have really been barking, and there was no barking,” he said. “All there was was just a shot. The guests who were at the house, they said the same thing. There was no barking. It was just a gunshot.”
After the shot, Bessler told the paper, his neighbor came outside and saw Mike limping on Bessler’s property.
A GoFundMe page, created to give Mike a full military burial, has exceeded its $10,000 goal in five days.
“We are a community coming together to mourn the loss of a brave military service dog, who deserves the honor to be laid to rest with a military funeral and burial,” the page reads. “Major Mike is a former military combat dog that had served two tours of duty in Iraq. Please help us fund a funeral that will do this military war veteran the respect he deserves.”
Bessler told the Billings Gazette that he intends to pursue civil action against the man who shot his dog and referred to his actions as “a wrongful use of force.” Until then, as Bessler confronts his latest trauma without his ever-present companion, he is left with a burning question for which he may never find an answer.