The memorial service had all the somber trappings of the many other military funerals held at Camp Nelson National Cemetery through the years: a lone trumpeter playing taps, the presentation of the flag to the family, a crowd of tearful mourners, a horse-drawn caisson, cannon fire and ceremonial rifle fire.
But the veteran who was being honored beneath the pavilion Saturday afternoon was unlike any who had been honored at the cemetery before.
The deceased was Iireland, 13, a military working dog who served two tours in Iraq, sniffing out explosive devices.
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“They deserve just as much as any man or woman out here,” said Iireland’s handler, Sgt. Joshua Sutherland, who adopted the dog after their tour of duty ended.
Sutherland called Iireland’s death “the toughest loss that I’ve ever had to endure.”
Iireland was born into the military working dog program at Lackland Air Force Base in March 2003.
There was no quit in that dog.
Sgt. Joshua Sutherland
She initially served in the breeding program, bearing a litter of six puppies in 2005, before being deployed for the first time to Iraq in 2007.
She returned home and was assigned to Sutherland in 2008.
The two patrolled for explosives for several months in Fallujah, Iraq, before returning to the U.S. in early 2009.
“Iireland on the job was just a ton of drive,” Sutherland said. “She would work until she’d die. There was no quit in that dog.”
With Iireland at his side, he said he was never concerned for his safety.
“If something was there, we were going to find it,” Sutherland said.
Working with military dogs, he said, provides companionship most overseas soldiers don’t have and forges a unique bond.
While many soldiers go back to their bunk to “stare at the ceiling” when their shift is over, “I can go back and cuddle with my dog or play fetch,” Sutherland said. “We had a lot of great times.”
But he said his best memories of Iireland were made after the pair returned home and he adopted her.
Iireland lived with Sutherland for seven years, moving with him and his wife Kaelyn from Hawaii to North Carolina, South Carolina and finally back to Kentucky, where Sutherland is from.
The couple now have two young boys, Hayden, 4, and Jack, 1. Sutherland recently took a job as a dog handler with the Transportation Security Administration, working at the Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport.
Iireland could not be buried at the national cemetery, but Col. Tracy Lucas, commander of the Camp Nelson Honor Guard, said he hopes some day there will be a place for canine veterans to be buried there.
“All of our war dogs deserve the same honor” as the people with whom they serve, he said.
Service dogs from several organizations, including Love on a Leash, which provides therapy support dogs, and the Kentucky Search Dog Association, were among those who paid their respects, along with representatives of military-related groups such as the American Legion and Patriot Guard Riders.
Dr. Elizabeth Banks, Iireland’s veterinarian at McCaw Veterinary Clinic in Nicholasville, was among those who spoke at the service.
“Some of these working dogs can be aggressive or high strung,” she said in an interview.
“She was like a pet,” Banks said. “It was hard to believe that she was instrumental in saving so many lives.”