Through four deployments in places like Kuwait and Kyrgyzstan, U.S. Air Force veteran Kyle Smith always felt safe with his beloved military service dog, Bodza, by his side.
That's why there was no way Smith was going to leave Bodza even though it broke his heart as his 11-year-old German shepherd was put down last week to end his suffering from painful health issues.
"There's no way I could've walked out and not been with him,'' Smith told TODAY. "I knew it was going to be a roller-coaster of emotions, but I had to be there. I wanted to be there."
His boss shot a stunning photo of Smith, 29, hugging Bodza's body as the dog is draped under an American flag, showing the touching bond between the two.
Smith is an instructor for military working dogs specializing in ground combat. He trains every Air Force dog team in the continental United States at a center in El Paso, Texas. Bodza was the first dog he worked with after joining the military — he adopted him after the dog retired from military service two years ago.
Following Bodza's death, one of his fellow military trainers helped find an American flag in the office to cover the dog. Smith felt it was only fitting because when Bodza retired from military service, he wasn't given a formal ceremony like other dogs had received.
"For him not to get the proper retirement, I felt like this was special and justified,'' Smith said. "All these dogs get little to nothing in return, but all they want in life is for you to be there for them and let them know that you love them."
After Smith noticed Bodza dragging his hind legs and slipping on smooth surfaces last month, he took him to the veterinarian. The dog was diagnosed with degenerative myelopathy, a disease of the spinal cord often found in older dogs.
"I could tell he was going to be in pain and it was starting to really affect his quality of life,'' Smith said. "I felt like it was the right choice."
Smith had a tearful FaceTime session with his parents and brother, who helped take care of Bodza when Smith was deployed in Kuwait in 2015. He then took the dog to the veterinarian to say goodbye, where he was joined by several of his supportive co-workers, many of whom had never met Bodza.
"Even before he was actually going to sleep, I was holding him, and I was losing it,'' Smith said. "You know it's going to happen and you can try to prepare for it, but you know it's gonna hurt."
Smith noted that there are military members across the country in all branches working with canines, so this is just one instance of the bond that develops between them.
"Bodza was the start of my canine career, so when I look at that photo, I think of every moment from day one,'' he said.
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