Colorado Springs News, Sports & Business

Gazette Premium Content SIDE STREETS: Four-legged veteran was hero to many

By Bill Vogrin Published: May 23, 2013

Mitra Singh is planning a memorial service for a hero: her friend and companion Emir.

For six years, Emir was in the Air Force and served four combat tours in Iraq. Emir won an award for being a key member of the security detail that protected President George W. Bush during his 2008 visit to Baghdad. He even played the role of matchmaker while recuperating from an injury.

Emir died Monday due to health issues likely related to a back injury that forced him to retire in 2009.

The loss has rocked Mitra, even though they were together about 18 months. And the fact Emir was a German shepherd trained in explosives detection and combat patrol has not lessened the pain.

He was a war hero, Mitra said, and deserving of honors befitting a soldier. In fact, she hopes to arrange a memorial service next month for Emir at Fort Carson.

"There are a lot of people who would like to come," Mitra said. "These dogs save so many lives. They are real heroes."

Emir was Mitra's hero and she related to the dog's struggle with a back injury that required him to use a wheelchair for months. Mitra had her own back injury. She was an Army medic stationed at Fort Carson when she damaged a vertebra in training for a deployment to Afghanistan.

Her injury led to her being declared disabled and she left the Army in 2010. She heard about a military dog that needed adoption - Emir - and he became her service dog. After brief training, Emir was able to lead Mitra to her classes at Pikes Peak Community College, compensating for her memory lapses.

"I'd have never made it without him," Mitra said.

He also became a regular visitor to the Veterans Affairs office at PPCC's Centennial Campus.

Mitra repaid his loyalty by spending thousands of dollars on treatment for the dog. But she couldn't save Emir.

Her experiences with Emir and other war dogs she has adopted has convinced her to devote her life to giving them a home when they retire from the military.

"I've just fallen in love with these guys," she said. "I will adopt them for the rest of my life."

Mitra said in their short time together, Emir made many friends who want to attend his memorial.

Emir's longtime handler, former airman Roy Mellenkamp, would like to attend but he's in Iraq, still serving as a dog handler only now as a civilian contractor.

Roy and Emir were a team, served two tours together, and developed a bond that survived even after they split up.

"Emir was a fantastic dog and one of the best friends I've ever had," Roy told me via email. "He set the standard by which I have judged all of my dogs, both personally and professionally, ever since."

Roy was Emir's first handler after graduating from basic dog training and joining the Air Force Working Dog program. They met at Kirtland Air Force Base near Albuquerque, N.M.

Roy said Emir had essentially flunked out as a bomb detection dog.

"His records stated that he was worthless as a detection dog," Roy said.

Hard work together, and a strange incident, changed the lives of both Emir and Roy forever.

Somehow, Emir bit off his tail and Roy rushed him to the veterinary clinic at Kirtland where they met veterinary technician Pam Mason.

"We ended up spending a lot of time together," Pam told me. "A few years later, Roy and I were married."

Even better, Emir recovered fully and "turned into an awesome working dog," as Pam described him.

Roy agreed, describing Emir as "quite possibly the best bomb dog we had in our arsenal."

Emir performed so well he was sent to advanced training in desert warfare and developed into a valuable combat patrol dog capable of sniffing out enemies and taking down suspects with "controlled aggression."

Sounds like he should have been a Seal Team 9 member.

"He was a superstar," Roy said.

His only real character flaw was his tendency to self-mutilate when under stress. As a result, Roy had to fly commercial airlines with Emir in the passenger cabin. This led to one of Pam's fondest memories of Emir - a photo of Roy and Emir in an airport.

"They had fallen asleep together on the floor of the airport," Pam said. "Roy said he woke up to the sound of people taking their pictures. That's how close they were."

She said Emir's death has hit her husband hard and though he won't be able to attend a memorial service, she intends to drive up for it.

"I honestly cannot tell you how much he meant to me," Roy said. "Most of the time it is the handlers that must teach the dogs. But Emir turned the tables and taught me how to be a handler. He cannot be replaced and will be sorely missed.

"My life is so much better for having had Emir in it. He was an amazing soul."

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Read my blog updates at blogs.gazette.com/sidestreets

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