By Staff Sgt. Jennifer Macklin, 45th Security Forces Squadron
/ Published October 14, 2010
Patrick AFB, Fla. -- Sept. 27 began as a typical day for most military, civilians and contractors working on Patrick Air Force Base. Squadrons conducted morning PT, and scores of Air Force members donned their blue service uniforms in preparation for another week. But it wasn't simply another "Blues" Monday.
Around 9 a.m., a procession of Security Forces vehicles drove with lights flashing from the Military Working Dog kennels to the base veterinary clinic. K-9 handler Staff Sgt. Justin Sonnier, accompanied by his long-time partner, MWD Pancho, led the convoy in the team's final emergency response.
"It was one of the hardest tasks I've accomplished since entering the Air Force. Leading him up the steps to the veterinary clinic--knowing he wouldn't be walking back out with me," said Sonnier.
After battling cancer for some time, Pancho was laid to rest by Army Capt. Ericka Carroll, base veterinarian, "Pancho accomplished so much during his time at Patrick. The loss of any animal hurts, but especially one whose life-time contributions have left an unforgettable mark on those he served."
Always a fighter, Pancho demonstrated his feisty personality even at the end. Half-smiling, Sonnier remarked, "I knew he wouldn't go quietly; he stayed true to himself."
MWD Pancho was a 13-year old Belgian Malinois assigned to Patrick AFB since January 1999. MWDs and their handlers have deployed in every major conflict since World War I, serving on the frontlines as force multipliers. In Iraq and Afghanistan, MWD teams routinely put their lives in danger conducting IED sweeps along convoy routes in an effort to afford safe passage during critical missions.
Pancho, a certified Patrol and Explosive Detector dog, completed 28,470 patrol and detection hours and an additional 30,000 training hours while at Patrick.
He served on four deployments, three of which were consecutive. While assigned to a vehicle search team at Al Jaber AB, Kuwait, Pancho quickly detected a cache of ammunition a foreign national attempted to transport onto the installation.
His actions while deployed undoubtedly saved the lives of countless Airmen, Soldiers and Marines.
In May 2004, Pancho was one of twelve Air Force MWD teams attached to Marine Corps infantry units supporting dangerous combat operations in Iraq. Some of the roles these teams filled were as combat patrol point men, vehicle search teams, IED detectors, and explosive cache search teams. Pancho served in several operations including Operation Phantom Fury in November 2004 when the city of Fallujah, Iraq, was first captured from insurgent forces. He also provided security during the first Iraqi elections in 2005, where he made several finds and apprehensions, one consisting of over 200 pounds of weapons and artillery.
On Tuesday, the 45th Security Forces Squadron honored Pancho's service with a memorial ceremony at the kennels, Pancho's home for eleven years.
The Commander, 45 SFS, Maj. John Newton said of Pancho's service, "It is with great sadness we gather today in honor of an extraordinary Defender. Pancho's accomplishments demonstrate what a valuable asset he was not only to the 45 SFS but to all units under which he served. Through multiple deployments, twelve hour shifts, and work conditions that would seriously concern many of us, he never hesitated and performed admirably in all tasks."
Pancho had nine handlers during his tenure at Patrick, the most recent being Staff Sgt. Sonnier. "When I was first assigned to Pancho, I wasn't sure what to expect. He had a reputation in the kennel for being the meanest dog, but we hit it off immediately. The bond between dog and handler is unbreakable, and I'll never forget him."
During the service, West Melbourne Police Officer and Pancho's former handler, Jason Campbell, shared Pancho's biography and numerous accomplishments. "Today is a very sad day for many handlers...Pancho had the personality everyone, except the handlers, feared. We loved him, and he will be remembered by all as a fighter, a partner, and most importantly, a friend."
Staff Sgt. Jessica Sonnier read Guardians of the Night, a poem highlighting the courage and loyalty of MWDs, and Tech. Sgt. Josue Rosario, 45 SFS Kennel Master, unveiled Pancho's memorial. The ceremony concluded with a Walk and Salute, the K-9 tradition of honoring fallen MWDs. The handlers slowly passed by Pancho's worn leash and inverted bucket, each paying their respects with a few words and crisp salute.
"Pancho, your shift is over now. We'll take it from here."