What happened after a bicyclist shot 'Major Mike,' the retired war dog
He often said they would die together. That if one went, the other would go soon after, that he would not make it without Mike.
They had been to war and back twice. They were a team in Iraq and a team in the long war at home, facing a daunting return to civilian life. Both the man and the dog came back damaged, diagnosed with post-traumatic stress, and they were healing together.
But Sgt. Matthew Bessler's worst nightmare came true when Mike, his wartime partner-turned service dog, was shot and killed Oct. 10 in Powell, Wyo., by a bicyclist who said the dog was attacking him.
"That dog was the other half of me," Bessler, 43, said in a long, often tearful, telephone interview on Sunday.
The Army Ranger's relationship with the dog was first chronicled in the Washington Post in July.
As word of the dog's death spread in Powell, Bessler's friends leaped into action, starting with a fundraising campaign to help him pay for a burial with military honors.
Jess Campbell, who owns The Gym in Powell, started a GoFundMe campaign to raise money for all the costs associated with a war hero's burial. Campbell, who met Bessler and Mike when Bessler started taking a 5 a.m. weight-training class, set what she thought was a lofty goal: $10,000, expecting a few thousand dollars to come in, she said. As of Tuesday, the campaign had raised over $14,000.
While the donations were pouring in, Campbell also heard from veteran and combat dog advocacy groups that have committed to covering all the costs associated with the burial and funeral and to providing Bessler with a new service dog. A private donor has even volunteered to pay to erect a memorial to "Major Mike" in a local park.
"What was amazing was all of the organizations and all of the people who came out," Campbell said. "I can't wait to sit down and show Matt that people all over the country support him and Mike."
Many unanswered questions surround the details of the shooting by the man, who had a revolver holstered to his bicycle. (The gun holster is visible in a photograph with the sheriff's report on the incident.) The man told officers from the Park County Sheriff's Office that he feared for his life when the dog tried to attack him on a quiet country road near Bessler's house in Powell, a rural farming community of about 6,000 people in northern Wyoming.
Bessler was away for the night with his girlfriend and left the dog in the care of his roommate, Jody Church, a letter carrier in town. Church had watched Mike for Bessler before, although it was rare that Bessler and Mike were separated. The day Mike died, Church went on an errand for a few hours and left Mike and Bessler's other dog in a fenced-in yard, he said, and had no idea how Mike could have gotten out to the road. Bessler said Mike never went out onto the road, beyond the fence around his 2.5-acre property.
The dog was shot in the back, according to authorities, and did not die instantly, limping from where he was shot to the garage behind Bessler's house, where a neighbor soon found him dead. The 59-year-old bicyclist left the scene after shooting Mike but told authorities he didn't think he had killed the dog.
The bicyclist's identity was being withheld "due to the possibility of repercussions," Lance Mathess, the public affairs officer for the Park County Sheriff, said in an e-mail. The man had no injuries, authorities said.
There were no direct witnesses to the shooting, and the sheriff's office concluded that the man was not guilty of any wrongdoing.
Bessler adopted Mike after their last deployment in 2010, and the Belgian Malinois then became a service dog, helping Bessler with his symptoms of PTSD and brain injury.
Mike was retired from the military because he stopped doing his job, sniffing out explosives or chasing enemy combatants, a key sign of what is known as canine PTSD. He had also crushed most of his teeth chewing rocks when he returned from the war, a sign of his anxiety, and Bessler said he was planning on getting him fitted for dentures soon.
When he retired, the Army promoted Mike, who helped Bessler earn two Bronze Stars for their work in Iraq, to the rank of major. He was credited with detecting thousands of pounds of deadly explosives and survived a near drowning in a river in Basra province.
Retired war dogs are not entitled to funerals or burials with military honors, Army officials said, but Bessler's friends and supporters say they hope to use Mike's death to push the military to change that policy.
Campbell said the first priority is to help Bessler heal.
"The shooting is controversial," Campbell said. "And everybody is going to have an opinion, but no matter what you believe about that moment, we are past that and now Matt needs this and he deserves all of this."
While Bessler is stricken, sleepless and said the last week has been a "complete blur," he said all the support is helping him face what happened.
Over the weekend, media outlets and websites across the country picked up news of the dog's death, while Bessler took a trip to the mountains to find some peace, he said.
He was out of cell range until Sunday afternoon, but as soon as his phone received a signal, he said, his phone was "blowing up" with messages and texts. He had several voice messages from people offering to buy him a new service dog. Mike, who was 10 when he died, helped Bessler with anxiety and other symptoms of PTSD and brain injury. The veteran served 20 years in the military, more than half of his career in special operations and served six tours in Iraq.
But it is far too painful, Bessler said, to think about another dog now.
"You can't replace him," he said. "He was a part of me. It's like trying to say you can replace a member of your family."