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Neighbors Growing Together | Nov 21, 2017

Marine reunites with dog in surprise ceremony

Fairfield resident instrumental in reuniting two ‘battle buddies.’
By ANDY HALLMAN | May 23, 2013
Marine Sgt. Ross Gundlach embraces Casey, the bomb-sniffing dog he served with in Afghanistan.

A local man has helped a Marine reunite with the bomb-sniffing dog he served with in Afghanistan.

Sgt. Ross Gundlach of Madison, Wis., went on more than 150 missions with Casey, the yellow lab that helped him find improvised explosive devices. Gundlach hoped to adopt Casey once he left the military, but he ran into an obstacle. Casey’s skills are so highly valued that she was put to work sniffing bombs for the Iowa State Fire Marshal’s Office.

The Iowa State Fire Marshal’s Office was willing to let Casey go but only if enough money could be raised to buy another bomb-sniffing dog to replace her. That’s where Fairfield resident Kaley Fleig stepped into the picture.

Fleig is a member of the Fairfield chapter of The Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks,” or more commonly simply “the Elks.” He is also a division chairman of the Iowa Elks Association, and a volunteer firefighter.

Through his firefighting connections, Fleig learned about Gundlach’s plight. Gundlach had emailed the dog’s new handler, Rob VanPelt of the Iowa Department of Public Safety, requesting to adopt the dog, even if he had to wait 10 years to do it and even if Casey had become blind by that time.

VanPelt informed Iowa State Fire Marshal Ray Reynolds of Gundlach’s situation. Reynolds was moved by Gundlach’s story and wanted to return the dog to its handler.

Reynolds had met Fleig at an Iowa Firefighters Association function in 2010 and the two had remained friends by working on various fire prevention projects together.

“Ray called me and said, ‘I need some money and I need it quick,’” Fleig said. “He told me, ‘This is a great young man, and this seems to be a wrong that has occurred. We’d like to make it right. Can you help us make this happen?’”

Military dog handlers normally receive the option of adopting their dog once the military no longer needs it. Fleig said a paperwork snafu prevented Gundlach from adopting his dog after his return from Afghanistan.

Fleig passed Gundlach’s story along to the Iowa Elks Association trustees. He told them he knew money for a bomb-sniffing dog was not in the association’s budget, but he hoped the trustees could see the benefit of reuniting the two “battle buddies.”

“It fits in very much with our key tenets,” Fleig said. “The Elks as an organization is very focused on our veterans. We made the pledge long ago that as long as there are veterans, the Elks will never forget them.”

The Elks trustees were all supportive of Fleig’s suggestion. Fleig discovered the organization needed to come up with $8,500 to train a new dog to take Casey’s place. He said that was actually a bargain considering it normally costs $15,000 to train a new dog and its handler.

The Elks were able to find $8,500 in their budget. Fleig said it was “one of the easiest decisions we’ve made.”

In March, the Elks received word Gov. Branstad was willing to accept the Elks’ donation and retire Casey from service. However, none of this was public information at the time. Hundreds of Elks’ officers found out about the deal in April, but they were sworn to secrecy so as not to tip off Gundlach to the plan.

Gundlach was informed that he might be able to get his dog back but he would have to make his case before the Iowa Legislature. Fleig said Gundlach was told getting the dog back was a long-shot.

Gundlach visited the Capitol building in Des Moines Friday. When he arrived, he was told the committee he was to testify before was running late. He was told he could participate in the Armed Forces Day festivities in the building’s rotunda while he waited.

It was all a ruse. When Gundlach entered the rotunda of the Capitol building, he knew something was up when he saw pictures of himself and Casey on the wall. Gov. Terry Branstad and Lt. Gov. Kim Reynolds informed him he would not actually have to testify since the state of Iowa had already agreed to release the dog to him.

Gundlach was overjoyed to see his four-legged friend walk in, accompanied by one of his good friends, Sgt. Robert Williams, who served with him on the bomb squad. Fleig was present for the ceremony and said there was scarcely a dry eye in the room.

“Ross was pretty emotional when he saw Williams walk in with Casey,” Fleig said. “It was very touching. Casey was extremely excited, her tail wagging the entire time. She jumped on him and started licking his face.”

Casey slept on Gundlach’s lap the entire trip back to Wisconsin.


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