It was a private reunion held late at night in the cargo terminal of Newark Liberty International Airport the day after Christmas last December. There was no flag-waving by gathered family and friends – just a lone Army staff sergeant waiting while a terminal attendant cut the nylon ties that sealed a crate – a crate that held his beloved friend. As the ties fell away and with the mere calling of his name, Navy Chief Nathan bounded out of his crate and into the arms of Staff Sergeant Sean Harrigan. They were together again.
European-born German Shepherd Nathan began his service to our country after undergoing a year of training in Italy as a Military Working Dog, or MWD. For the nine years following his successful completion of that training, he saw continuous service in India, Kuwait, Europe, Iraq and Bahrain as a hunter of Improvised Explosive Devices, or IEDs. It was in Bahrain that he and his then new handler SSG Harrigan began the year-long partnership that inexorably bound them for the rest of their lives.
Nathan and his fellow explosive-detecting MWDs, capable of a 98 percent bomb detection rate, were trained to sniff out minuscule amounts of a wide-range of explosives while searching entry points, patrolling within secure installations and at checkpoints. According to SSG Harrigan, Nathan’s job-specific modus operandi was to retreat five feet from a device he had detected, lie down facing the potential killer and await its disposal. When asked how many such finds Nathan had detected, the simple answer was “countless”.
Prior to 2009, Military War Dogs were euthanized at the end of their useful military working lives. That practice was abolished in November of that year when former President Bill Clinton signed H.R. Bill 5314 which immediately facilitated adoption of canine war heroes. Thus, after his retirement, Nathan remained at the U.S. Naval Air Station in Sigonella, Sicily awaiting approval of SSG Harrigan’s efforts to bring him home to Dingmans Ferry.
After the clearing of the red tape, the only remaining obstacle to his homecoming was the payment of $602 in transportation fees. Stepping up with donations to clear the way were three local area veterans organizations: VetStock; the Combat Veterans Motorcycle Association; and the Marsch-Kellogg American Legion Post 139 (through its Benevolent Fund); all of which are unwavering in their commitment to improve the lives of our area’s former and present Armed Services men, women and families.
These days, Navy Chief Nathan can sometimes be found at the American Legion Post in Milford, Pike County where, in recognition of his undying service to his country, Legion members continue to honor him with the permanent installation of a doggie bed and an endless supply of treats, ear-scratching and head pats.
It would be difficult to find a more appropriate characterization of Nathan’s service and devotion than the following by Naturalist and Crusader Ernest Harold Baynes who wrote:
“Of all the animals that have come into the service of mankind, the dog is preeminent in intelligence. But that isn’t all: He is more than intelligent, for he is inspired by the love that merges into deathless devotion.
He is more than burden bearer, more than toy, more than companion; he fills posts of human responsibility, his integrity is unassailable, his loyalty supreme.
“‘The more I see of men,’ said Frederick the Great, ‘the better I like dogs.’ And today there are those who hold that, in accepting the company of men, the dog certainly condescended to a mesalliance.”