CULVER — R-533. for Army veteran Joseph Steenbeke, that ID number tattooed on his arm is a constant reminder of a missing part of himself — his former military working dog, Tess.
Tess, a now 9-year-old Belgian Malinois, worked alongside the former Tactical Explosive Detective Dog (TEDD) handler for nearly a year while he was deployed in Afghanistan.
The two spent every minute together, as Tess would search for bombs to protect Steenbeke’s company.
“We were searching roads, fields, compounds, vehicles — wherever we would walk, that’s where we had to look,” the 27-year-old Steenbeke said. “We led the pack with everybody else walking behind us. If she wasn’t good at her job, we wouldn’t be alive.”
It’s been five years now since the Culver resident and South Bend native saw his former war companion.
“Not being with her, I feel like I am constantly going through a huge emotional rollercoaster,” said Steenbeke, who endures PTSD. “She was arguably the biggest part of one of the biggest parts of my life. I feel like it’s a part of me missing because I don’t have her around.”
Back in 2012, two years after serving a combat tour in Iraq, the 2009 Granger Christian School graduate trained to be a TEDD handler and went to K-9 training in Denver, Ind., where he met Tess.
Originally, Steenbeke was paired with another dog. But after a short amount of time training, he said, the two did not work as a pair as he “moved a little bit quicker than the dog did.”
He decided to look for a new partner.
Going into the kennels, Steenbeke was surrounded by hundreds of dogs, each barking loudly, craving attention. But one dog caught his eye.
“Tess wasn’t walking around or barking. She was just sitting in the middle of her kennel looking at me,” he said. “I’m like, ‘That’s different, what’s the deal with her?’ The instructor said, ‘Oh, that’s Tess. She’s a sassy little thing.’ a I thought, ‘Well, let’s give her a shot.’”
As soon as the kennel door opened, Tess’s tail started wagging and she jumped into Steenbeke’s arms, proceeding to cover the veteran in doggy kisses.
From that moment on, Tess was Steenbeke’s dog and after months of intensive training together, the two were approved as combat ready and deployed in May 2012.
As a TEDD K-9 handler, Steenbeke wasn’t attached to one specific unit while overseas. He was an asset at a brigade level. Wherever they had to go for different missions, Steenbeke and Tess went.
“I wasn’t always with the same people or in the same place all the time,” he said. “For the entire deployment in Afghanistan, she was the only one truly consistent thing that I had.”
Steenbeke said Tess kept his mental health in check and helped him emotionally, but that all ended when his tour in Afghanistan came to a close February 2013 and he returned home, without Tess.
As the plane landed in Kansas, Steenbeke was given only a few minutes to say goodbye.
“I had five minutes to try to sum up the past year with my best friend,” Steenbeke said. “I tried spending that time remembering the good things and how much joy, love and pride she brought into my life. I was trying to cope with the possibility I would never see her again.”
And that was the last time Steenbeke saw her.
While Steenbeke is safe at home in Culver, Tess continues to sniff out bombs. The dog works active duty as a Patrol Explosive Detection Dog (PEDD) for the Connecticut National Guard.
With her old age, though, Tess is expected to retire soon. Steenbeke and his wife, Stephanie, want to be the ones to bring her home.
“I know how important Tess is to Joe, I mean he has only recently started talking about her, that’s how much she means to him,” said Stephanie, who was inspired to help her husband after watching the documentary “War Dog.”
“After watching that and seeing what these veterans went through to get their dogs back, I realized how important this would be for Joe. There was a true difference between the way these men were before and the way they were after they got their dog back, and I want that for my husband.”
With the help of U.S. Rep. Jackie Walorski, the Steenbekes have submitted adoption papers and are hopeful Joe will be reunited with the dog once she retires, even though that date has not been released by the Army as Tess continues to pass evaluation tests to serve.
Jack Morrissey, communications director for Rep. Walorski, said the congresswoman’s office has stayed in close contact with the couple, ensuring that proper attention is being paid to requests.
“As any case like this, the most important role we can play is being the liaison between the two agencies,” Morrissey said. “We really want to help them and have a good outcome on this whole situation.”
The Steenbekes are hoping for a happy ending, but that has not always been the case for other veterans.
Before 2000, many military service dogs were killed when they were no longer fit for active duty, having been classified as “surplus equipment.”
A handler fought to save his former companion, and though it was too late for his dog, Robby, the law changed in his name to require the dogs be made available for adoption after their service.
Before “Robby’s Law” was amended in 2015 under President Obama, requiring the Defense Department to return dogs to the Unites States after they retire, giving first adoption priority to former military handlers, the rules were different. In its original state, the law mandated that all suitable military working dogs be available for adoption by “law-enforcement agencies, former handlers of these dogs, and other persons capable of caring for these dogs.”
Betsy Hampton, founder of Justice for TEDD Handlers, an organization focusing on reuniting dogs with handlers, found that the dogs were adopted primarily by law enforcement personnel and civilians — but not by their former handlers. This didn’t stem from a lack of handlers wanting to adopt dogs, she said, but rather the military purposely bypassing and often times misplacing adoption applications.
Now, like he has done over the last half decade, Joe will continue to wait to bring home his soldier dog.
“To be honest, I don’t think it’s selfish, but I think I can help her just as much as I know that she’s going to help me when she’s back,” Joe said. “She’s going to have somebody to lean on every single day, and I will too.”