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A deployed man’s best friend

Scott A. Wirtz, a Defense Intelligence Agency civilian, was killed during a terrorist attack in Manbij, Syria, Jan. 16.

When DIA sent out the press release identifying the former Navy SEAL, the photo that accompanied it wasn’t a run-of-the-mill portrait or a generic grip-and-grin shot. No, it was an image of a 42-year-old badass and his dog.

Each time a news agency covered Wirtz’s death, they inevitably used the same photo – a bearded warrior, smiling as he kneels down to pose for a quick shot with man’s best friend.

Turns out, as the old adage goes, this picture is worth a thousand words.

A rocky start

It’s not uncommon for service members and civilians to come in contact with stray animals during a deployment. This was definitely the case when members of DIA’s Strategic Expeditionary Group and Global Security Division arrived in Iraq, June 2018.

But while there was an overabundance of stray animals – feral dogs, in particular – only a few bonded with the deployed DIA members. Out of those canines, one immediately stood out from the pack.

“Stewie just had this sparkling personality,” said Crystal G., a SEG staff officer. “He was very friendly and just seemed attentive and very intelligent.”

Like that, Stewie became the team’s “golden child,” as Crystal put it. Stewie was roughly six months old when the team first arrived in country. Wirtz, who immediately took to Stewie, believed he was at least part Kangal, but it was difficult to know for sure because his fur was so dirty and matted, and he was malnourished to the point that his ribs were showing. Because the team didn’t have a military working dog on the compound, Stewie became a mainstay around the office – even learning to open and close the office’s doors on his own.

“We took him under our wing, and he was really responsive to commands and training,” Crystal said. “And he was happy he was getting three square meals a day.”

While Stewie quickly bonded with the DIA members, he wasn’t nearly as friendly with strangers. Because Stewie was abused when he was younger, he had trust issues with most people and other animals and, at times, became aggressive.

“Not with us because, I think, he really considered us a family. But anybody he didn’t recognize or who wasn’t usually in our area, he was definitely on guard,” Crystal said. “He became quite protective of us.”

The great escape

Shortly into their deployment, Stewie was involved in an accident. A driver inadvertently backed a vehicle into him – severely wounding the puppy.

“Luckily, we had a vet there who was able to fix him up,” said Crystal. “That increased our feelings of responsibility for Stewie. We really cared for him as he recovered, and he bounced back without any issues. That’s when he became our dog.”

All was well with the DIA members and their unofficial mascot, until they were informed that a new working dog was scheduled to arrive at the compound. Any incident between Stewie and the working dog would affect the team’s ability to do their job, so Stewie could no longer stay with them.

Faced with the thought of Stewie ending up back out on the street or possibly having to be put down, Wirtz took matters into his own hands – concocting an elaborate plan to ensure Stewie’s long-term safety.

His ultimate goal was to get the canine safely to the U.S., which is why Wirtz paid $1,000 out of his own pocket to the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals International to officially adopt the puppy. Once adopted, Stewie was quarantined for 60 days to ensure he didn’t have any diseases. Wirtz also had to make arrangements for all necessary shots, kenneling and flights. More pressing though, Wirtz needed to help Stewie lay low for a little while.

“Scotty literally hid the dog,” said Crystal.

For two days, Crystal and others believed Stewie had been put down. In reality, Wirtz had stashed the dog away until he was able to secure space on an airplane.

A very good dog

In total, Wirtz paid nearly $3,000 to formally adopt Stewie. Astoundingly, he did so without hesitation, even though he knew the dog wasn’t ultimately going to end up with him.

Wirtz loved his job, which required regular deployments, and spent much of his free time traveling the world. This meant keeping Stewie with him wasn’t really an option, but that didn’t stop him from wanting to give the dog a better life.

That’s when Wirtz approached Mickey T., another DIA member who bonded with Stewie during the deployment, about the possibility of opening up his home to their four-legged friend. Mickey lived with his family on a big ranch in Texas, with plenty of space for a young and energetic puppy. Fortunately for Wirtz – and Stewie – Mickey agreed.

Fast forward to one week before Christmas 2018. Mickey took his daughter, Caroline, out to dinner and, as the meal wound down, he slid a present across the table. When Caroline opened the box, she stared at a leash. “We’re getting a dog,” he said.

“We went to the airport and he was in his kennel on a stand,” Caroline said. “At first, he was very still and very quiet. But then my dad spoke and he got super excited. He started flipping out. He couldn’t wait to get out of the kennel. So, my dad opened the kennel door and he jumped into my dad’s arms and was so happy to see him.”

Although he was in a foreign place, Stewie’s trust issues evaporated as soon as he heard a familiar voice. While it normally took him time to warm up to new people, Caroline proved to be an exception. Stewie sat in her lap in the backseat the entire ride home from the airport.

And the two have only grown closer after their initial encounter. Caroline has taken it upon herself to continue training Stewie – getting him acclimated to a leash was tricky, but he quickly mastered commands like “sit,” “lay down” and “paw.”

Even when they’re not training, they’re rarely apart. In fact, his favorite place to sleep is under Caroline’s bed.

“It took him a few weeks to adjust to his new home, but he’s been a very good dog,” Caroline said. “He’s been very nice, and he is very protective.”

The first time Caroline saw Stewie was when her father sent photos home during his deployment. Those images always brought a smile to her face, but never in her wildest dreams did she think that dog would ever join her family. He might have been a scrawny stray when he first came into their lives, but now – thanks to the kindness and generosity of Wirtz – he’s found his forever home.

As perfect as everything has been since Stewie retired to Texas, there was one more surprise in store for the puppy – a new name.

“We renamed him Rocky Balboa because he has been through so much,” Caroline said. “He almost died several times. But, here he is, and he’s so happy.

“Like Rocky Balboa, he can take a beating, but he’ll always keep fighting,” she added.

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