The Greatest Bond: Scent of Survival

posted Sep 29, 2020, 2:31 PM by Bruce Rowe   [ updated Sep 29, 2020, 2:40 PM ]

On average, 21 U.S. veterans, including one active-duty service member, commit suicide every day. And 3,200 dogs are euthanized in that same time. Both statistics should cause every American deep concern. But sometimes a bad beginning will have a happy ending. This story is about a fortuitous turn of events for a veteran, a dog, and those lucky enough to come in contact with them.

Marine Sergeant Nick Chamberlain was on his third deployment. He’d already made his decision to leave the Corps when his enlistment expired. Being in the infantry, he saw his share of action in Afghanistan and was wounded twice during combat with Taliban fighters.

His Marine detachment had been at Fire Support Base Murphy for six months. Almost done with the assignment, the unit would be returning to Camp Pendleton in two months. Things had slowed down considerably since his company’s first three months in country when they had been under regular attack by mortars, rocket fire or attacks by Taliban fighters. For the last three weeks, Lima Company had only been receiving sporadic sniper fire, but nobody was complaining.

Lance Corporal Rob Tremayne said, “If our luck holds out, we just might make it out of here without getting into another firefight.”

“I’ll consider myself lucky when I’m on a plane back home with all my body parts still attached,” PFC Craig Rizzo interjected. “Until then I’m keeping my head on a swivel.”

“Like Yogi Bear said, it ain’t over till it’s over,” said Lance Corporal Jerry Olander with a smile.

“It’s not Yogi Bear, it’s Yogi Berra!” Corporal Louis Caggiano snapped.

“What’s a Berra?” Olander asked.

“A smaller bear, kind of like a wolf and a wolverine,” Corporal Chris Burson said.

“You guys got no respect for history or tradition,” replied Caggiano. “Yogi Berra was a legendary New York Yankee. He was one of seven managers to lead both American and National League teams to the World Series. Berra appeared as a player, coach or manager in every one of the 13 World Series that New York baseball teams won from 1947 through 1981. Overall, he played or coached in 22 World Series, 13 on the winning side. Berra caught Don Larsen’s perfect game in Game 5 of the 1956 World Series. He also holds the all-time record for shutouts caught with 173.”

“I guess you’re a Yankees fan?” Rizzo surmised.

“Like my dad and his dad before him, and everybody else in my family,” Caggiano said proudly.

“Wasn’t it Yogi Berra who said that being in the Marines was ninety per cent mental and the other half was physical?” Chamberlain joked.

“Something like that,” Caggiano said.

Lt. Andy Breck walked up, “A drone detected some movement about three clicks [one click equals 1000 meters] southwest of our position. Sergeant Chamberlain, take a patrol out and see what’s going on.”

“Roger that.”

“When you’re saddled up, stop by the Command Center and I’ll give you the grid coordinates.” Lt. Breck added as he walked off.

Patrolling for 30 minutes, the Marines patrol had not seen any suspicious activity. Sergeant Chamberlain looked up and saw the drone circling overhead then checked his map to confirm he was in the right location. Something didn’t seem right to him and he ordered his Marines, “Take cover!”

His warning couldn’t have come at a more opportune time as a machine gun opened fire right where the Marines had stood a moment earlier. Mortars came falling from the sky above and one landed ten feet from Sergeant Chamberlain. The blast lifted him off his feet and slammed him against a boulder.

A medivac unit took Sergeant Chamberlain to Landstuhl Regional Medical Center, the main medical center for U.S. Coalition forces. LRMC is also the evacuation center for all injured U.S. service-members serving in Afghanistan, Iraq, African Command, Central Command, and European Command. After several surgeries to remove 16 pieces of metal shrapnel from his body, Doctor Richard Barkley conferred with his fellow physician Tate Chambers. “That part is done. We got all the metal out and he should make a full recovery from his physical injuries, but…”

“It’s the traumatic brain injury that’s concerning,” Doctor Chambers finished the thought.

Sergeant Chamberlain slowly awakened to see a blurry image of Nurse Lana Garfield standing next to his bed. She smiled down at the injured Marine. “Welcome back, Sergeant.”

Sergeant Chamberlain’s mouth was so dry he could hardly speak. The kindly nurse held a glass of ice chips under his chin and the Marine took some into his mouth. It felt cool and refreshing and he took several more chips.

“Where am I?”

“Landstuhl.”

It only took the Marine a couple seconds to realize he was injured. “How long have I been here?”

“Six days.”

The next question was harder for Sergeant Chamberlain to ask, “How bad am I hurt?”

“You’re much better now.”

Sergeant Chamberlain started doing a mental inventory of his body because he didn’t want to look to make sure he was still in one piece. “What about my…my…”

Nurse Garfield had dealt with enough badly injured combat veterans to know what the Marine’s concerns were. “Don’t worry about that.”

Then Sergeant Chamberlain became slightly nauseous, the room spinning around him. Over the next few days he began experiencing classic symptoms of TBI (traumatic brain injury); amnesia, dizziness, slurred speech, blurred vision, and sensitivity to light. When he began eating solid food, he realized he had no sense of smell or taste.

Three weeks later, Sergeant Chamberlain was transferred from Germany to Camp Pendleton and assigned to the Wounded Warrior Barracks. Most of his symptoms had either diminished or vanished completely except for his loss of smell and taste. After a short period of treatment and some transitional therapy, Sergeant Nick Chamberlain was discharged from the Marine Corps. With the assistance of qualified counselors and a government-subsidized program for severely injured combat veterans, Nick moved into a fully furnished studio apartment in a new complex on Vandergrift Boulevard about two miles from the back-gate of the base. He would be allowed to stay in transitional housing for one year rent free, as long as he continued with his treatment program through the Veterans Administration.

*  *  *

It had been over four months since his injury. Nick’s sense of smell and taste still had not returned so, without the pleasure of enjoying his food, Nick went on a strict diet of vegetables and fish. Basically eating only to keep his energy up.

He also enrolled at Mira Costa Junior College with the intent of getting his Associates Degree. 

Adam Slattery, a former Navy Corpsman who also lived at the apartment complex, had been in a vehicle that ran over an IED in the Helmand Province of Afghanistan. A piece of shrapnel severed his left hand at the wrist with surgical precision. Slattery asked Nick, “If you're looking to pick up some extra money, I’ve got this part-time gig driving for Motion. I usually make a couple hundred dollars every week.”

“What are your hours?”

“I tell the company which days I’m available and they text me when someone needs a ride. I’m not doing much so it gives me a chance to get out, ride around, and meet some people.”

“I’ll think about it. If I decide I’m interested, could I go with you to see how it works?”

“No problem.”

*  *  *

Kanines to Kombat Veterans is a non-profit organization that works with various animal rescue organizations including SPOTT and It’s The Pits. Based on a four acre parcel of land in the hills of Vista, California, their primary mission was to join military personnel who have post-traumatic stress disorder, traumatic brain injury or a other psychological disorders with a service animal. The motto of the organization is “Creating the Greatest Bond.” The organization was born out of the premise that dogs could help veterans with a variety of mental health issues.

When Nick was informed of the program, and that he was an eligible candidate, he immediately applied. Two weeks later, notification arrived that he had been selected. He drove to the sanctuary and waited on a bench outside the main office.

An attendant walked toward him with a tan dog on a leash. The dog pulled loose and ran over to Nick and sat before him. He placed his right paw on his knee and looked up. The attendant smiled. “I guess Deputy couldn’t wait for a formal introduction.”

“Deputy? Is that his name?”

“A deputy sheriff brought him in. He’s about two years old. We did a DNA test on him. His breed is Pitador.”

“What’s that?”

“A cross between a Pitbull and a Labrador.”

Nick gently stroked the head of the animal and felt a sense of calm sweep over him.

“My brother Vincent and I used to spend a lot of time at our grandparents’. We’d play catch and my brother had a strong arm, but wasn’t the most accurate thrower. I’d be all over the big yard chasing and fetching the ball. My grandfather nicknamed me ‘Deputy’, short for Deputy Dawg after a cartoon show he loved. It’s strange which things you remember like they were yesterday while yesterday seems like an eternity away. The other characters in the show were Muskie Muskrat, Moley Mole, Possible Possum, Ty Coon, and Pig Newton. My brother was Vincent Van Gopher because when the ball went under something, he had to crawl to get it. Until I saw this dog, I had completely forgotten about those days.”

The attendant smiled. “The mind is a strange thing. When we’re in trouble or not exactly where we want to be, it defaults to a sanctuary of more pleasant memories. Not to change the subject, but I think you and Deputy are a match. Let’s walk over to the office and get you signed up for a training class. Let’s go Deputy.”

The dog barked and Nick replied “Yes sir” at the same time.

As Nick passed a jasmine plant, he caught a faint scent of the sweet-smelling flower and stopped to savor the aroma. “Something wrong?” The attendant asked.

“Something else I just remembered…how good flowers smell.”

*  *  *

The handler class is where veteran and dog learn to work together as a team. It usually takes three-to-five months to complete. For the first month, Deputy stayed at the training facility and Nick drove over from Oceanside to work with his four-legged partner. Their connection grew stronger with each passing day and Nick’s sense of smell became ultra-sensitive, far beyond what it ever was. During the next phase of training, Deputy was allowed to go home with Nick and from that point on, unexplainable things began to happen. The former Marine’s energy level increased dramatically. A laser focus and keen awareness of his surroundings built in his mind. Despite these noticeable changes, the biggest difference were the feelings of overwhelming calm and positive energy that never left Nick as long as Deputy was close by.

Joining Planet Fitness, Nick worked out three hours every morning before going to the sanctuary for his training session. Deputy wore a vest to identify him as a therapy dog, which allowed Nick to bring his trusty companion wherever he went.

After an intense workout at the gym, Nick and Deputy stopped off at Valerie’s, a small café on Hacienda Drive, for a Mexican omelet. The place was empty. Nick sat at the booth in the corner to eat his breakfast, while Deputy laid down under the table. Two men walked up to the counter to place their order, or so it seemed. Nick detected an odor that resembled the way your skin smells after being in a heavily chlorinated pool. Deputy also picked up on the scent. When Nick looked toward the woman at the counter, she had a distressed look on her face. While one man remained at the counter, the other one went into the kitchen with her. Nick gazed down at Deputy and knew what he had to do. He walked up to the counter and said to the man whose eyes were nervously darting about, “Where’s the lady?”

The man responded quickly. “She’s in back getting something.”

Nick made a move toward the kitchen and the man grabbed his arm and said, “You don’t want to do that.”

Nick noticed the handle of a pistol sticking out from the man’s waistband and commented, “You’re probably right,” then heard the faint sound of a scream coming from the kitchen. As the man reached for his pistol, Nick punched him in the throat and grabbed the weapon as the robber fell to his knees, gasping for air. Nick kicked him over and told Deputy “Watch him.” Deputy barked and stood over the fallen man with his teeth bared.

Nick cautiously made his way into the kitchen and saw the other man standing next to the woman with a gun in his hand as she opened the safe. When the man saw Nick, he turned around and fired. The bullet whizzed by Nick’s ear and hit the wall. Nick returned fire, striking the man in the shoulder.

When the Oceanside Police arrived, Officer Jim Martin said, “These two have been on a crime spree since last week, starting in San Leandro. They don’t usually leave witnesses. You were both very fortunate.”

“Better lucky than good,” Nick responded.

“Or luck is the residue of skill,” Officer Martin gave another version.

When Officer Martin saw the service dog vest on Deputy, he asked, “You a veteran?”

“Yeah.”

“Me too; 5th Marines.”

“7th Marines.”

“I’ve got your contact information. The detectives will be in touch.”

“Anything I can do to help,” Nick said.

The female employee rushed over and embraced Nick. “Thank you…thank you very much. You can come back anytime and eat free!”

*  *  *

As his bond with Deputy grew, Nick’s new awareness manifested in strange ways.

One, he was driving west on Highway 78, usually exiting at Sycamore Avenue, but decided at the last moment to take Civic Center Drive instead. Just as he turned off, the truck in front of him blew a tire and its cargo container flipped over. If Nick had kept driving straight, he would have crashed into it.

After finishing a training session, Nick and Deputy were walking through the lobby and passed a middle-aged woman who was deep in thought. Nick commented, “Don’t worry, he’ll be fine.”

The woman stopped abruptly. “What did you say?”

Nick responded, “Don’t worry, he’ll be fine.”

“How do you know?”

“I just know,” Nick shrugged, walked off then looked down at Deputy. “Do you know why I said that?”

Three days later, the woman came up to Nick during his training session. “My father underwent a serious heart operation and the doctors didn’t give him much chance of surviving it. The whole family was prepared for his death. When I got to the hospital, I told all my relatives exactly what you said, ‘Don’t worry, he’ll be fine.’ I don’t know why I believed you, but I did. The doctor said it was a miracle and my father is now on his way to a full recovery!”

As Nick walked away, he looked down at Deputy, “This is more about you than it is me.”

Nick decided to start driving two days a week for Motion. He got a call for a pick-up in Del Mar. When he reached his destination, a large beachfront house, he stopped out front. Since it was 2 a.m., he didn’t honk, but waited patiently.

Stuart Magowan was a multibillionaire hedge fund manager and owner of the residence. He was also an alcoholic and abuser of women. Callie Brinton was an attorney and her firm had just handled a large transaction for Magowan. When she met the dashing billionaire, he was charming and sweet. After accepting his dinner invitation, Callie expected an enjoyable evening, but after several drinks, Stuart became rude and belligerent. Callie tried to be diplomatic and told her host, “I’m not feeling well, I’d better go home.”

This further outraged the drunken Magowan. “You’ll go home when I tell you!”

Callie headed for the bathroom and called for a ride. While Magowan continued drinking heavily, Callie pretended to be docile and compliant while looking out the front window for the vehicle she called to arrive. When she saw it, Callie decided to make a run for it. Magowan caught her as she struggled to unlock the front door. He punched her in the face and as she fell to the floor, her shoes came off. Magowan was out of control by now, hitting Callie in the stomach and tearing at her clothes. She struggled to her feet and with a high kick, broke Magowan’s nose.

Finally reaching the front door, she staggered out. The pain in her abdomen was so intense that she fell to the ground. When Nick saw her, he rushed to her assistance while Deputy leaped out the window. Magowan came to the front door, with blood streaming down his face and firing a pistol at Callie and Nick. Deputy was off like a rocket and came right at Magowan. The gun went flying when he snapped down on his wrist.

On the way back to Carlsbad, Callie just wanted to go home, but Nick detected the scent of chlorine and knew that the woman sitting in his backseat was seriously injured. “I’m taking you to the hospital.”

It was a prudent and lifesaving decision because Callie had internal bleeding and needed emergency surgery. Nick and Deputy stayed at the hospital until the doctor told him she was out of danger and in recovery. The next day, Nick returned to see Callie. She expressed her gratitude.

“The doctor said if you had not brought me here, I may have died.”

“The most important thing is that you’re alright.”

Deputy rested his head on the bed and Callie stroked him. She reluctantly brought up the subject of Stuart Magowan. “I apologize for putting you in a dangerous position. The man that you helped me escape from is a very powerful and ruthless individual. I worked on some of his legal matters so I know what he’s capable of. He will try to get even with both of us.”

“You need to get better. I’ll handle…what is this guy’s name?”

“Stuart Magowan.”

“I’m sure if I had a talk with him, we could come to an agreement.”

After her release from the hospital, Nick cautioned Callie, “I don’t think you should stay at your place until we settle things with Magowan.”

After packing a couple suitcases, Callie checked in at the Marriott Hotel on Oceanside Ranch Road in Oceanside.

*  *  *

The two professional assassins arrived at Callie’s darkened condo, picked the lock, and entered the living room. Walking into the bedroom, they saw the shape of something under the covers. Both men fired three shots from pistols equipped with noise suppressors.

Then the man on the right fell to the floor as a baseball bat hit him across the forehead. Before the second man could react, the bat caught him across the knees and he also went down. Turning on the lights, Nick saw the man who he’d hit in the head. His eyes were wide open in surprise and he was obviously dead. The second man was moaning in pain. “You broke my knee!”

Nick pulled back the blanket on the bed to show several pillows. “You were going to kill a defenseless woman. Who sent you?”

The man didn’t answer so Nick responded. “There are 206 bones in the human body. I’m betting that before I break ten of them, you’ll tell me anything I want to know.”

“Stuart Magowan,” the grimacing man said.

“How were you supposed to let him know the job was done?”

“Call him.”

“Do it!”

Pulling out his cellphone, the man made the call. “It’s done.”

Stuart Magowan leaned back in his recliner and gazed out over the Pacific Ocean. “Good…I want the driver next.”

When the call disconnected, the man looked over at Deputy. “Nice dog…I guess you can’t really let me live. You know I never wanted to do this job in the first place. Mind if I pet him?”

The man reached out his hand and Deputy clamped down and crushed several bones. Nick commented, “I guess he doesn’t like cold-blooded scum.”

With a painful dog bite to go with his smashed knee, the man said, “You might as well put me out of my misery. Can I ask a question first?”

“Go for it,” Nick said.

“You’re pretty good. Where did you learn your skills?”

“Marines,” Nick answered as he smelled the faint odor of chorine.

“A Marine and a dog. I guess I was destined to lose this fight,” the man sighed.

“Call it, head or heart?” Nick asked.

“Heart,” The man whispered softly.

Nick obliged. He loaded the dead bodies into the trunk of his car and left the condo with Deputy.

*  *  *

Stuart Magowan heard a scratching sound, but didn’t see anything on his surveillance cameras. He walked the marble-floored hall and opened the front door. Not seeing anything when he looked to the left, he then looked to the right to see his hired killers lying behind the bushes. Nick stepped out from behind a tree, then put a bullet between Magowan’s eyes. The billionaire fell between the two men.

Wiping the pistol’s handle clean of his fingerprints, Nick placed it in one of the hitman’s hands. It was definitely going to be a confusing crime scene for investigators to figure out.

When Callie heard about Magowan’s death, she had a pretty good idea who was responsible, but never voiced her suspicions. She had to replace her mattress, damaged by the bullets, but figured it was a small price to pay.

The next day, she hosted Nick and Deputy for a home cooked meal to thank them for their help. Pouring a glass of wine for Nick and herself, she looked down at the unusual dog on the floor.

“To the greatest bond; a man and his dog.”

They sipped the vintage burgundy and Nick refilled their glasses. “Here’s my toast.” Then he took a deep breath, detecting the tantalizing aromas of vanilla and peppermint blended together as Deputy rested his head on his lap. “To the sweet Scent of Survival.”


Read this story and many more from Thomas Calabrese at The Vista Press.

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