Relationships forged in war are unlike any other.
When Marine Cpl. Jared Heine returned to St. Francisville after being wounded in Afghanistan, he faced several struggles — the aftermath of traumatic brain injuries, post-traumatic stress disorder, hearing loss. As much as anything, though, he missed a comrade with whom he trained, worked, ate and even slept with in the same cot.
He missed Spike, the black Labrador retriever who was his partner in finding explosives.
“Since he got out, that’s all he ever talked about: Spike, Spike, Spike,” said Heine’s mother, Mary. “As time went by, and he was getting a little worse, I just thought to myself, ‘I’m going to find this dog.’”
She did. On March 7, Mary and Jared Heine pulled up to their home after a 1,000-mile trip from Richmond, Virginia. With them was Spike, who welcomed himself to his new home by immediately plopping himself into a nearby mud puddle.
Mary Heine groaned. Jared Heine grinned.
“It’s awesome,” he said. “It’s almost like having your best friend back, but also like having a kid, as well.”
Heine, now 25, joined the Marines in 2008 and was assigned to the artillery. Then, he was approached about training to find explosives. Technically, he needed to volunteer. Practically, Heine knew he had no choice. “Voluntold” is how he describes it.
Sent to a facility to match Marine to canine, Heine was introduced to Spike, then about 1½ years old. They were a team right from the start. They trained for eight months, with Spike learning to follow Heine’s vocal and hand signals, how to sniff out explosives and signal he’d found them. They arrived in Afghanistan in early 2011 and were assigned to Echo Battery, 2nd Battalion, 12th Marines.
They joined patrols, with Spike at the front. Spike located about 10 explosives on such patrols.
“He saved a lot of lives,” Heine said.
Three, however, exploded, the last causing a brain injury that ended Heine’s war.
Heine was hospitalized for two months in Hawaii, and Spike received a new handler and returned to combat. Heine was assured that Spike would be given to him after the dog’s military service ended, and his mom submitted the paperwork.
But it didn’t happen.
Spike was sent to a North Carolina facility that provides dogs to police forces. By the time Heine inquired, Spike had been reassigned, and Heine didn’t know where. Depression set in.
In early January, Mary Heine contacted a long-time friend and former Marine, Rob Barrow, for advice. He put her in touch with Boots and Collars, an organization that helps reunite military K-9 handlers and their former dogs, and the Military Working Dogs Facebook page.
When a photo was posted online in late January, a K-9 handler with the Virginia Capitol Police saw it and alerted his commander, Col. Steve Pike. The photo and the information, including the ID number tattooed on the inside of the dog’s left ear, convinced Pike that his unit had Spike. He emailed Mary Heine, and they spoke by phone. They set up a reunion on Feb. 11 at the Virginia Capitol.
The Heines didn’t know whether they could bring Spike home. There was a complication.
Spike had been assigned to Laura Taylor when she had just begun training as a K-9 officer. He was her first dog. Like Heine, she bonded quickly and deeply over the next two years with Spike.
“I can’t explain how much he means to me,” Taylor told the Richmond Times-Dispatch. “He’s just a great dog and a great partner.”
The reunion took place with great ceremony, with police, Marines as witnesses. Jared Heine ascended the Capitol steps to see Spike again for the first time in more than three years.
“I want to tear up, but I’m a Marine and we don’t cry,” he said. “I was overjoyed. It was good to see him. At first, he was, like, ‘Wait, I remember you.’”
When Heine approached, Spike licked his face.
The ceremony moved inside, where a decision awaited. Pike had wanted to see Heine’s and Spike’s reaction to confirm his plans. Mary Heine will never forget the words.
“He said, ‘I’ve thought long and hard about it, and I just feel Spike has one more mission in life, and that’s to go home and be with Jared.’ … I still cry every time I think about it.”
There were other tears shed that day. The Heines’ joy was Taylor’s grief. She continued to work with Spike until the legislative session ended, and Heine received Spike on March 5.
“She’s extremely professional,” Pike said. “Obviously, it’s bittersweet for her, because she’s developed such a great bond and relationship with Spike. But, looking at the entire circumstance, she knew Spike needed to go back with Jared. It was difficult but the right thing to do. I know she misses Spike and was definitely sad. She’s taken several days off since last Thursday to decompress from it.”
Spike, meanwhile, is running, playing fetch, destroying chew toys, discovering the joys of a front-yard mud puddle and wearing the purple LSU collar he wore in Afghanistan. Heine, who attended culinary school after leaving the Marines, plans to open a restaurant with two other wounded servicemen. The name will be Purple Hearts, a tribute both to the military medal and the LSU color.
“His spirits are lifted already,” Mary Heine said. “You can tell the difference. He’s a happier person. Jared used to have just the best temperament — just happy-go-lucky, just wanted to get along with everybody and talk with everybody. But since he’s gotten back, he doesn’t want to be around big crowds, doesn’t want to be around a lot of people, just more withdrawn.
“When he got Spike back, I can see a difference already, and I can only assume it’s going to improve as time goes on,” his mom said.