Military, subcontractor blamed for unknown status of wartime companions
HINESVILLE, Ga. -- No matter how hard they search, some members of the United States military know they might never find what they so desperately want.
For Private First Class Luke Andrukitis, all he has left of his best friend are a handful of pictures and a lifetime of memories. They're what helps get him through when the pain of what's happened becomes too much to bare.
"I'm not usually a very emotional person, but giving up my dog was very heartbreaking," Andrukitis told First Coast News.
Andrukitis, who is stationed at Ft. Stewart in Hinesville, Georgia, was part of a U.S. Army program called T.E.D.D., which stood for Tactical Explosive Detector Dogs.
The program trained soldiers like him to become trained handlers and work with K9s that are specially trained to sniff out explosives in enemy territory overseas.
For someone like Andrukitis who said he grew up around animals, the T.E.D.D. program represented a unique chance to his country.
Andrukitis was paired with Robbie, a Belgian Malinois who he believes is four-years-old. Together, they spent about a year defending our country against terrorism and building a bond that appeared unbreakable.
"You're literally putting your life in the hands, or the paws, of a dog. You're trusting him with your life," Andrukitis said.
But when the two returned to America from deployment, the young soldier said that bond was shattered in one day.
"When we came back, we went to another military kennel base in North Carolina and there were kennel handlers there who we gave our dogs to. From there, we took a bus back down to Ft. Stewart," Andrukitis explained.
That was the last time he said he saw Robbie. He said he was given only minutes to say goodbye.
"It was pretty short compared to the time we had together," he described of the moment.
First Coast News first caught on to Andrukitis' story after seeing several posts on social media for lost military dogs. It seems many of the posts are isolated to soldiers based at Ft. Stewart.
After making contact with them, we've learned about a dozen of them in the T.E.D.D. program have launched individual searches in an attempt to locate their K9s.
We've also learned the Army launched the T.E.D.D. program in 2010 and deployed about 150 trained K9s multiple times over the years. Each one goes with a different handler.
For almost the entire last year of the program, K2 Solutions of North Carolina was subcontracted by the federal government to train handlers and dogs.
Some of the dogs have remained in service, but others have been phased into retirement after undergoing evaluation, according to a defense spokesman.
The defense department also stated the priority remains on the health and well-being of the dog as its future serving this country is evaluated.
The Army insisted to us that when dogs are phased out of the program, handlers have the chance to indicate their desire to adopt. However, that's not what soldiers at Ft. Stewart say happened.
"K2 kept the dogs we returned to them and dispersed those dogs without notifying anyone," said Army Specialist Sean Bunyard.
He added there was no communication from the Army or the kennel workers about which dogs were eligible for adoption. Emotions began to run even higher as stories arose of soldiers learning their dogs ended up living with civilian families.
"I wish they would have set us aside and said, 'Here's the adoption paperwork. Here's what will probably happen to your dog. Here's what may happen to your dog,'" Bunyard explained.
Now, he he is left to wonder what's become of his dog, four-year-old Kryno.
"I'm pulling out stuff from Afghanistan while I'm unpacking and I can still smell him on it," Bunyard said.
Other soldiers have found success using websites like Facebook. Andrukitis at least knows his dog is still in the military. "I don't know which agency he's with, but I know he's still doing work for the U.S.A.," he said.
K2 Solutions told First Coast News it had no role in any adoption process. The Army also confirms it is ending the T.E.D.D. program amid concerns from K9 handlers.