When Coal got to Biscuit Acres Dog Park for the first time earlier this month, he immediately sniffed out the perimeter.
As a recently retired U.S. Marine Corps improvised device defeat dog, he was just following his training and clearing the new landscape of any explosives.
"It took him two hours," Judy Stephens said. "All the way around the perimeter, he wouldn't pay attention to us."
Stephens and her husband, Phil Stephens, adopted Coal after the 7-year-old black Labrador retired from the Marine Corps in January. He is now enjoying his retirement at their home in Tulsa, away from the stresses of war that affect dogs, as well as people.
"I can guarantee you the dog park is free of" improvised explosive devices, Phil Stephens said. "And our back yard."
Coal was in the Marine Corps for four years, including more than two years in Afghanistan, where he had two handlers. Coal's main objective was to use his finely tuned sense of smell to search off-leash for IEDs. When he located a potential bomb, Coal was trained to lie down and await orders.
These dogs have become a vitally important part of the military force for their abilities, but the inherent danger of searching for explosives in a war zone creates stress and sometimes injury to the dogs.
"He was what they call 'in blast' twice, which means he was right there at it," Judy Stephens said. "That's how he lost his tail."
Those experiences and other stress led Coal to change his behavior when he came back stateside in January, she said.
"The second time he came home, he seemed to have a lot of problems with stress, and he was being aggressive and pacing," she said. "So they decided to retire him. He just quit working. He just had it."
About the time Coal was retiring, Judy Stephens heard about the program through which retired IED-detecting dogs from the Marine Corps are adopted.
The couple had helped to rehabilitate and recuperate German shepherds for years, and they relished the opportunity to help give a dog like Coal a comfortable retirement.
Judy Stephens said the documentary "War Dogs: America's Forgotten Heroes" was also a factor in her desire to adopt one of these dogs. The documentary, which aired more than 10 years ago, tells the story of war dogs during the Vietnam War.
According to the documentary, thousands of dogs went to Vietnam to assist the soldiers, but only about 200 returned to the United States. The rest were either abandoned or euthanized, according to the documentary.
"These dogs are soldiers," Judy Stephens said. "They give their life for this country, and what do we do? We go off and leave them."
She filled out the extensive adoption application but didn't have high hopes of getting one of the dogs. The military tries to get the dogs to their former handlers or other military personnel first, then to others who apply.
"I got this email that said to be patient. The first dogs were going with the handlers and it might be six months to a year," Judy Stephens said. "About three weeks later, I get this email that said I've been chosen.
"I was so thrilled, so thrilled," she said.
Coal arrived at Tulsa International Airport on Sept. 13 and was met by the Stephenses.
"We let him out, and he was just so glad to see everybody," Judy Stephens said. "We brought him home, and he hopped right up in bed and slept with us."
Coal has acclimated well to their home in the time since he got to Tulsa, Judy Stephens said. He had stomach issues, his hearing is diminished, and though he loves to play fetch, he does so with a limp.
But the Stephenses said they are eager to give Coal a relaxed life now that he's finished his service.
"He's never known stability. It's always been confusion and noise," Judy Stephens said, with Coal spread out on the chair behind her, chewing on a rubber ball.
"It's also a sense of giving back when you take one on and give him a good home," Phil Stephens added.
American Cold War Veterans, Inc.
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