A Proper Retirement for Our Nation’s K-9 Vets
One Southern California couple is doing what they can to provide a sanctuary for retired military and law enforcement working dogs who have no place else to go.
Welcome, readers, I’m so glad you’re here! In today’s blog I share with you an excerpt of my conversation with Krystal Tronboll of The Ddamien Project. Krystal is a former U.S. Navy dog handler and has a very special relationship with our nation’s K-9 veterans. I can’t wait for you to read all about it!
Krystal, tell us your story!
Hello, everybody. My name is Krystal Tronboll. I am a prior dog handler for the United States Navy. I enlisted in 2006 and I was in for five years. I was a dog handler for my time in service. I went through Master-at-Arms A School and was selected through what was called the “pipeline program” and was selected to go right from Master-at-Arms A School and sent directly to the military working dogs handlers’ course, also called “RC School.” I was selected in 2007.
How long had you been in the Navy at this point?
Three months. I went right from boot camp to MAA School. At the time, the Navy was not really taking kids directly from their MAA school. Traditionally, to be a dog handler you had to get your Master at Arms, you were sent out to the fleet, and once you arrived at your duty station, you could volunteer your time at the kennels and get what we called a PQS, where you volunteered, got stuff signed off, and the kennel master would nominate you to be sent back to Lackland Air Force Base to the school house. But we were so short-manned that the Navy thought that we could get more long-term use out of a handler by having their entire enlistment as a dog handler right off the go. So I was, I think, the third class that had the opportunity to be interviewed for the K-9 program, and I was selected with two other classmates to go on to dog school right out of the start.
Was that always your goal, before you even went into the Navy?
Yes. I was a little older. I was already divorced, and almost 27 years old by the time I enlisted. And I was a working student at a small eventing farm in New York. I was also a veterinary assistant at a local vet hospital. My brother, who had been in the Navy for some time by then, called and said, “Hey. We have some dogs…you should try to get out of small town USA, go see the world, get a new start.” And he told me about the K-9 program and I told him that I thought that was dumb that the Navy had dogs on ships — that didn’t make any sense. But, it did sound like something different, and I was really interested because I had really good working relationship[s] with the horses that I had the opportunity to work with, and I wanted to know if I could do the same thing that I could do with them…could I do it with a dog? I could not, it turns out. Totally different, I’m not going to lie.
So what is a day in the life of a Navy dog handler like?
My first duty station was NSA Bahrain in the Middle East. It’s a little island in the gulf. It’s also known as “the Las Vegas of the Middle East,” because there’s alcohol, you can drink when you’re 18.
That duty station is probably one of the busiest in the Navy. For us, at the time, it was almost 24/7 K-9. When I got there, we were basically working and showing up at the kennels every day until you certified on your first dog, and you would have 16–18 days where you would come in, you would feed dogs, clean kennels. You had training for bite work, detection, had to pull the explosives kit, had to stand your watches — and we had about 22 dogs, give or take, at that time and it was a really, really busy time. It was 2007–2009, and we were at a modified Charlie as far as security went on the base, and it was pretty wild for K-9 at that time. We also covered Dubai. We would have the opportunity to go for a three week go in either Fujairah or Dubai to cover the ports that we were also assigned to there, which was awesome.
What do you mean when you say, “cover the ports”?
We have a little airfield and a peer-side area where the supply ships would come in in Fujairah. We’d have to sweep all the cargo containers and the stuff that would be onloading and off-loading from the ships for Fujairah, And then in Dubai, we actually had a little pier that our ships could pull into, and the guys would be able to go into Dubai, but we would have to sweep what was called “the sandbox,” where they had all these little stores set up, and all of that would have to be swept before the ships could pull in, and then we would have to maintain sweeping anything that was brought into that area while that ship was in port. So, everything had to be swept.
What do you mean, “swept”?
Bomb dogs, drug dogs — we would go in and check vehicles and cargo for drugs and explosives.
We complain about the heat now, but when we were over there we had 138 — I think the warmest was 140, 141 [degree days]— and horrific humidity. So, keeping your dog in good body weight and maintaining them for good condition to work in the heat, that really changes your mindset.
How did you keep them conditioned for that kind of heat?
You PT in the heat. We made sure that [when] we did our training, we kept them out of the AC unless they were resting. I used to walk the base a lot with my little Malinois that I was assigned to, and I think [that with] my little phone that checked my steps I averaged almost ten miles a day walking.
Where did you go after Bahrain?
32nd street in San Diego. That’s how I ended up here in Southern California. My fiancé at the time was also stationed here in San Diego, and so in 2009 I got back Stateside, went to Vegas and got married…and we’ve been here in San Diego County ever since. I got out in 2011, after my second knee surgery. I decided that I was not going to be an asset as a dog handler, so, I had to find another direction.
What do you do now?
Well, I went and worked for the Army as a civilian veterinary technician from 2012 until just this year; in February, I quit, and I am the Executive Director of a nonprofit called The Ddamien Project.
Tell us about that!
The Ddamien Project, in a nutshell: we adopt and sanctuary military working dogs, law enforcement, or contract working dogs that normally would be ineligible to adoption to the public because of behavior issues or medical-related issues. The project is named after a military working dog by the name of Ddamien. Ddamien, Delta 214, was a Lackland-bred Belgian Malinois-German shepherd cross that was probably one of the most infamous dogs of my generation. He was also known as “The Devil Dog of San Diego.” I was asked to adopt Ddamien in 2010, and he came to live with my husband and I for almost two years. He had extensive behavior issues with a lot of people over the years, and he retired very well for us.
Why was he infamous?
He didn’t like people. He didn’t like his handlers a whole lot, and he had bitten most of his trainers at Lackland as a baby. When he got sent to San Diego, he deployed almost every year of his life. He had almost nine deployments by the time he was 10 years old. He was diagnosed with PTSD in 2007…one of our first military working dogs diagnosed with it.
Let’s talk about that really quickly…a dog being diagnosed with PTSD…
Post-traumatic stress disorder does apply to dogs as much as it does to people. Some dogs, especially during the Iraq and Afghanistan wars came under a lot of gunfire. I’ve got a couple friends whose dogs were involved in helicopter crashes; IEDs with vehicles. So, some dogs, after they’ve been exposed to the same circumstances that handlers would also have a reaction to, the dogs will, too. Loud sounds, helicopters, certain scenarios where it sounded like gunfire — sometimes, even dogs being near airfields and airstrips was really hard on them. And then they become reactive, whether they start having behavior issues like spinning, barking uncontrollably, going after handlers, just acting out at certain times. MWD Secario, who we also have, also had PTSD when he came home from Afghanistan. He was just really reactive to sounds, noises, helicopters, large groups of people. The same thing can apply to dogs as it does to people.
And you said that Ddamien was one of the first to be diagnosed with that?
He was. He worked through it, and he continued to serve. He was [working] during the time that the military was using titanium caps on canines [as in, teeth] when they would break them, so he had titanium canines to help keep his teeth strong for bite work. So, when he would go lunging at people and snarling, you’d see these really nice, shiny, silver canines coming at you.
He would lunge at his gate and bark. People used to have to feed him with a squeegee, you couldn’t try to open the door. They’d slide the food pans under the door with a squeegee because he’d go after people. He was just notorious. But he was also one of the most requested dogs down range. He was outstanding at his job. He could find anything. He wasn’t a lot of fun to work, but he was outstanding to have as a dog on your team. When I went through the school house in 2007, one of the things they really tried to make [a point of] was that when you got out to the fleet and you went to your first kennel, you didn’t get to pick your dog. You were assigned whatever dog was available, and you had to learn to work the dog in front of you, whether it was a dog like Ddamien, who you who had to find a way to work even if he scared the holy bejeebies out of you. It was that concept [that] you had to be open-minded and you had to be willing to put in the blood, sweat and tears to get the job done.
So, you were a handler in the Navy; you got out, started working for the Army as a civilian, and somebody asked you to take Ddamien?
I was still active duty in 2010. He actually came from my kennel. I had met Ddamien and I had a working relationship with him. The Navy decided [that] Ddamien had served his time, and it was when the military, we were adopting out dogs — it was relatively newer, after they had started adopting dogs to the public. Dogs with bite history were a liability, and it was very difficult to place a dog like Ddamien anywhere, even with an experienced handler. My command at the time knew I had a very good relationship with Ddamien They understood how important the adoption program and the military working dog program [were] to me as a person, and they asked me if I wanted to adopt him. They would let him come home with my husband and I because I understood what was at risk if I did not do due diligence on managing Ddamien and his behavior.
What was at risk?
Well, there’s always a concern for liability. When we fill out an adoption packet for a military working dog, there is a covenant not to sue. What you don’t want is an incident where you have a dog loose in the neighborhood. A lot of these dogs aren’t mean to go to [the] dog park, not to go to PetSmart, not to go to public events…small children…things like that. You don’t want to set up the program to where there’s a pending lawsuit, and you don’t want to be that guy that’s responsible for someone getting hurt. So, I don’t want my dogs to have that reputation, and I also feel that it’s very important to maintain the integrity of the adoption program for the military when these dogs leave. We all have to understand that there’s a risk, and it’s our responsibility to protect our program and to protect these dogs, because if you have an incident you don’t want to risk the end of anybody being able to adopt out a working dog. Whether it’s a dog that has issues or a dog that has no issues, at the end of the day they’re all military working dogs.
You mentioned that your command knew that the adoption program was really important to you personally. Why is it so important?
These dogs are our partners. We spend 12 hours or more with them a day, typically. They’re with us when we, as people, go through really difficult times in our lives — whether there’s marital problem, children problems, other personal problems — you may not be able to talk to somebody else, but you always have this dog. This dog is your partner, you put a lot of your well-being into this dog. Your pride, your work ethic, all of these things are a part of your relationship.
You’re talking about if you’re a handler?
As a handler, as kennel support. Even kennel support is super important. As someone who doesn’t have the job title of dog handler, as a kennel support, you also have that same relationship to maintain that care. So, I think everyone involved with the military working dog program, from the veterinary core, to kennel support, to dog handlers — [they] are all part of that same family. Because those relationships with those dogs, they might be a little bit different, but at the same time, [we’re] all just as emotionally involved with these dogs.
And so, when it comes to the adoption program…
Back in the not-too-far past, military working dogs could not be adopted out at all. They were euthanized when they served their end of purpose. Whether the dog had issues or not, the government wasn’t willing to take on the liability. As the program has evolved, and the military has allowed handlers who view these dogs as partners and as part of their family to go and live the rest of their seniorhood in a home, on a couch or in a back yard…each few years, everybody’s willing to take a little bit more of a chance to get as many dogs out of the military — living in a home, for some of these dogs, is very stressful. They’ve lived their entire lives in a kennel. They don’t go home with handlers. If they go on deployment, they might get a chance to sleep in a hotel, they might get to sleep in a bunk bed, [but] these are those random opportunities. But for the most part, these dogs are raised and bred to work. We play with them, we have our moments and opportunities, but to come into a house, which they really haven’t been exposed to other than for working purposes — one of my favorite dogs ripped out my drywall, took out my flooring and destroyed my bookcase. We built him a kennel in the garage, and he loved it. We bought him a TV, a Kuranda bed — he wanted the lifestyle that he knew, which was his kennel. And he was perfectly happy there. Not a lot of people are going to do those types of things, and a few of us have been around long enough that military’s willing to take the chances of saying, “Well, you know what you’re in for. This dog has gazillions of vet bills coming. He doesn’t like kids, doesn’t like dogs, doesn’t like livestock, old people, small people, or wheelchairs. So, if you’re willing to take that on, you do you.
What motivates you to dedicate your life to this?
After working and handling these dogs and seeing what they’re like in the kennel, and as they grow older and they start to change — those first times that you see dogs play in the yard and in the pool, and act like a normal dog and not a working dog — there’s such an emotional shift. And for myself, that is one of the coolest moments…I can take a dog I’ve never met, pick him up at the airport, he tried to rip my face off through the kennel as we load him into the car. And then I get home, I just start throwing chicken and toys at him until he stops looking at me like he wants to eat me, and then all of the sudden they just take this big breath. And they’re never the same again. You’re looking for the inner dog. Our goal is to take the working dog out and put retired dog in. It’s a really cool process to watch them just become dogs. Especially when you talk to their prior handlers who knew them in their prime, and they can’t believe that this is the same dog that we have, that’s upside down playing with toys in the back yard, or doing something else silly. And that’s worth it.
Why is it worth it? Why does it matter to you?
Some of these dogs come with a lot of history. Whether or not the dog has ever deployed, I think of all working dogs on the same line. They’re all just as important. They don’t value a deployment versus a non-deployment like people do. These are people’s partners, and we take it really seriously that we’re able to provide a life for them that their handlers couldn’t. Whether it’s because they have children, they’re deployed, the dog is not going to get along with the rest of the family — there’s so many reasons that a handler can’t adopt their own dog. And I feel that I have the capability and the opportunity to provide these dogs the chance to have that retirement. A lot of these dogs are only going to get a year or two before they pass. They’re up there in age, they have a lot of medical issues, and I just feel that they’ve earned it. They deserve it, just as much as any other veteran that’s out there and that has worked day in and day out. We’ve had dogs that have sat in the kennels with no home for months with nowhere to go. And they don’t get handled a whole lot, the kennels are just too busy, and the dogs just, they stress. It’s just really hard on them, and we just want to provide a different opportunity.
Readers, you can hear the rest of my conversation with Krystal by listening to The Hero Beside Me Podcast, most anywhere you get your podcasts. The Ddamien Project is currently home to 11 retired working dogs. If you would like to help Krytal, her husband, and their organization to reach their goal of having a proper kennel to house these dogs and to help them take in even more of our nation’s K9 vets, please visit https://ddamienproject.org/.
If you’d like to learn about the photography project about working dogs that is the sister project of this blog and podcast, please visit The Hero Beside Me and sign up for the newsletter.
Thanks for reading!