The U.S. military is failing its canine veterans. Inside one Marine’s fight to save her dog.

·West Coast Correspondent

LOS ANGELES — Something was wrong with Baddy. It had been eight months since Charlsie Hoffman adopted the handsome 10-year-old Belgian Malinois, and together they had gotten used to taking long, uneventful walks around the neighborhood. Today started out the same. The sun was shining. The palms were swaying. And then, suddenly, Baddy stopped.

Hoffman tugged on his leash, but Baddy wouldn’t budge. “We didn’t even walk that far,” Hoffman says. “I knew it was a hot day, but…” Her voice trails off. “Baddy tried to pee. He couldn’t. And then he lay down. I could just tell.”

Hoffman was right. After a series of tests, the veterinarian confirmed that Baddy had prostate cancer. “I dropped to my knees and broke down,” Hoffman says. “It was like I had been hit by a car. I was like, ‘Why? Not only does Baddy have to die, but he has to suffer?’ It seemed so wrong.”

The doctor reviewed Baddy’s treatment options. They could experiment with chemotherapy, which is hit-or-miss and would probably make Baddy feel even worse. They could remove his prostate altogether, which would make him incontinent. Or they could try something called IMRT — intensity-modulated radiation therapy. Fewer side effects, a better chance of shrinking the tumor. Without IMRT, Baddy would probably be dead in four months; with it, he could live another two years. They both agreed that it was the best option. The only drawback? The treatment would cost Hoffman $12,000.

Most pet owners eventually face the same sad decision that Hoffman faced that day: How much am I willing to suffer financially so that my animal might suffer a little less? That he might be a little healthier? That he might live a little longer?

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But there was a difference: Baddy wasn’t just any dog. He was a retired military working dog, or MWD. As a member of the Marine Corps’ HMX-1 canine squadron, Baddy had been responsible for safeguarding the presidential helicopter, Marine One, on roughly 200 domestic and international missions. Hoffman, a Marine herself, had been Baddy’s handler on more than 25 of those missions. Trained to sniff for explosives and attack assailants, Baddy had spent eight years of his life personally protecting both President George W. Bush and President Barack Obama, and he had received the finest 24-hour veterinary care while doing it — at no cost to Hoffman or any of his other handlers.

But as soon as Hoffman adopted Baddy, the government stopped supporting him — the same as any other retired MWD. No transportation from the HMX-1 kennel in Quantico, Va., to a base closer to his new home in Los Angeles. No medical coverage to defray the cost of treating the hip dysplasia he’d developed while in the Marines. And certainly no $12,000 for combating the cancer that was now killing him.

“I’d never felt more hopeless,” says Hoffman.

Baddy’s story raises some difficult questions. What do we owe our canine veterans? And what can we afford to give them? When men and women decide to enlist, America promises them health insurance and access to care even after they leave the military (as terrible as that care can be). But dogs don’t volunteer to join the armed forces; they’re drafted directly from their breeders. While in service, they save countless human lives: more than 150 per pup on average, according to experts. They uncover IEDs. They parachute into terrorist compounds. They keep the leader of the free world safe. Over time, their duties — jumping, sprinting, sniffing out chemical explosives — may start to damage their health. Many of them develop posttraumatic stress disorder, just like soldiers. Yet when they retire, the government basically forgets that these dogs exist, and the burden of caring for them — financially and otherwise — falls entirely on the people, mostly handlers like Hoffman, who are selfless enough to take them in.

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Baddy in front of Marine One. (Photo: Courtesy Charlsie Hoffman)

Is that fair? Is the plight of our canine veterans and their human caretakers just another tough-luck story — one more unfortunate problem that Washington, D.C. can’t afford to solve? No one thinks the federal government should be forking over tens of thousands of dollars to every MWD owner who can’t bear the thought of losing his or her aging dog. But is there a better way to give these animals the care they deserve?

For a few hours, Hoffman let Baddy’s diagnosis gnaw at her. It was August 2014. She was 28. She had recently sold her car. She was living with her parents. And she was trying to pay her way through the University of Southern California by working part-time at a bank. She knew that IMRT would consume her entire savings. But she quickly realized that she didn’t have a choice.

“At the end of that day, I just looked at Baddy and I was like, ‘Well, I can either do nothing and be a stupid mess, or I can fight,’” Hoffman recalls. “‘I’ll fight with you if you’re willing to fight with me.’ And I swear to God he nodded. So I said OK.”

Hoffman immediately applied for a medical credit card. She had no idea how she would ever pay it off.

*****

On April 4, 2007, President Bush flew to Fort Irwin in California’s Mojave Desert. It was one of Hoffman’s first missions as a member of HMX-1. It also happened to be the first time she met Baddy. “I saw him work,” Hoffman recalls. “I saw the way he interacted with his handler. He took orders, but then he would be like, ‘Hey, Daddy, did I do a good job?’ I realized he wasn’t just working to get a reward; he was working because he actually loved his handler and wanted to make him proud. I said, ‘That dog is amazing. He must be mine.’”

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Hoffman looks like a varsity soccer player — long blond hair, athletic build, all-American smile — but she likes to say that “warrior blood runs through [her] veins.” Both of Hoffman’s grandfathers served in World War II. Her father served in Vietnam. Her brother served in Iraq and Afghanistan. According to family lore, her dad is a direct descendent of frontier lawman Bat Masterson; her mom is related to Erik the Red. Hoffman wanted to enlist in the armed forces right after graduating from high school in 2003, but her father and brother urged her to go to UC Irvine first. She eventually failed out. “I got lazy,” she says now. “I didn’t want to work.”

Hoffman vowed never to make the same mistake again. She spent a year as a hostess at Disneyland’s Pirates of the Caribbean restaurant; she took a job at a salon to pay for classes at Santa Monica City College. But the pull of military life was too strong. Finally, in 2006, Hoffman enlisted. She chose the Marine Corps because she felt it was “the toughest branch”; as a woman, she could “gain the most respect that way.” She had a plan: First she would join the military police, and then she would earn a spot as a canine handler. “I’ve always been a dog person,” Hoffman explains. “And remember, this was the height of Operation Iraqi Freedom. If I was going into combat, I’d want to go in with a canine.”

Baddy had been born to a breeder in Ramsdorf, Germany, two years earlier. It didn’t take long for U.S. recruiters to notice him: the massive head, the solid musculature, the focused yet friendly demeanor. At Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas, Baddy was trained to smell explosives and patrol sensitive areas, and by the time Hoffman got to boot camp, Baddy was already serving in the presidential helicopter squadron. The day he arrived at Quantico, he immediately leaned into his new handler’s leg and demanded a rub with his thick muzzle.

It would take another year for Baddy and Hoffman to cross paths, and more than a year after that — a year during which Hoffman kept pestering the higher-ups to let her “go canine” — before they would become partners. By then, Baddy was so beloved that his first handler almost refused to let him go. “I will adopt Baddy when he retires,” the handler told Hoffman. “Don’t even think about it.” Yet within three months, “Baddy’s old handler would call Baddy, and Baddy wouldn’t move,” Hoffman recalls. “He would just sit there and look up at me — no command necessary.”

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Hoffman and Baddy on the job. (Photo: Courtesy Charlsie Hoffman)

For the next two years, Baddy and Hoffman were inseparable. Together they searched every hangar and helipad for threats. They scoured every fuel truck for explosives. They accompanied the president on dozens of domestic missions; they traveled to France, Mexico, Portugal, and Egypt as well. At a four-star hotel in Paris, Baddy leaped on Hoffman’s bed the second she dropped her luggage, then spent the entire night hogging her Egyptian-cotton covers. At Quantico, Baddy and Hoffman practiced basic obedience every day; Baddy was tested on up to nine explosive odors at least twice a month. Sometimes they went to Camp David; other times they guarded a base in Washington, D.C. And all the while, Baddy was “charming the pants off people,” says Hoffman. “I wasn’t known as ‘Corporal Hoffman,’” she adds. “I was known as ‘Baddy’s handler.’”

When Hoffman’s active-duty contract was up, she told her fellow handlers that she — and only she — would be adopting Baddy after he retired. In 2013, the kennel master emailed Hoffman to ask her if she still felt the same way. Baddy was starting to develop hip dysplasia, he said; he was also having a hard time working in the heat. Hoffman didn’t hesitate. “Absolutely I want him,” she wrote back. She also reached out to Baddy’s original handler — the one who called dibs on him first. “I won’t insult you by saying I’m sorry,” Hoffman began, “but I’d never be able to forgive myself if I didn’t take Baddy. I have so much love to give him. All of his needs will be met.”

The original handler knew when to fold. “I know how much you love him,” he replied. “I know he’ll be taken care of.”

But Hoffman would have to wait. Once an MWD is retired, the Department of Defense refuses to spend another federal dollar on the animal. Hoffman was in Los Angeles; Baddy was in Virginia. Quantico couldn’t just put Baddy on a military plane bound for Los Angeles Air Force Base. Instead, Hoffman would have to find a way to travel to Virginia and retrieve the dog herself — on her own dime — even though she was, in effect, doing the Marine Corps a favor by adopting him. A handler in Virginia who wanted to adopt an MWD stationed in Korea would have to do the same.

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Friends later volunteered to transport Baddy across the country — but still, Hoffman was shaken. “There’s a saying: ‘No Marine left behind,’” she explains. “So I couldn’t fathom how they could just cut Baddy off cold turkey. Baddy was one of the hardest-working Marines I ever met. Human Marine, canine Marine — to me, there’s no difference. But I wouldn’t say the government even saw Baddy as a dog. They don’t see these animals as living beings. They see them as equipment. ‘This equipment is done, so we’re throwing it out.’”

*****

Once upon a time, the military really did classify MWDs as equipment. And in this case, “once upon a time” means as recently as March 2015.

The story of how that classification changed is, in one sense, encouraging — an acknowledgment that something was wrong. But it’s also disappointing for anyone who believes the federal government should be doing more to support retired MWDs and their handlers.

After the Vietnam War, thousands of military dogs were, in fact, left behind. “When U.S. troops made their hasty withdrawal from Vietnam, they did not take the dogs with them,” writes Rebecca Frankel, the author of War Dogs: Tales of Canine History, Heroism, and Love (Palgrave Macmillan Trade, 2014). “They were left in the care of South Vietnamese and most likely met a terrible end.”

For the rest of the 20th century, MWDs that had outlived their usefulness were simply euthanized. But in 2000, Congress passed House Resolution 5314 — commonly known as Robby’s Law — to “facilitate the adoption of retired military working dogs by law enforcement agencies, former handlers of these dogs, and other persons capable of caring for these dogs.“ On April 17, 2001, the United States Air Force announced the first official retirement and adoption of a military dog since the end of World War II. “He’s a lucky dog,” said a Lackland veterinarian at the time. “The first lucky dog.”

But adoption created challenges of its own. By the end of the decade, a former Army veterinary technician named Lisa Phillips managed to bring these complications to the attention of Connecticut Sen. Richard Blumenthal, and in 2012, Blumenthal, a Democrat, partnered with Republican Rep. Walter Jones of North Carolina to draft the Canine Members of the Armed Services Act.

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Hoffman and Baddy. (Photo: Courtesy Charlsie Hoffman)

As written by Blumenthal and Jones, the bill would have accomplished three things: First, it would have required retired (and often far-flung) MWDs to be transported back to Lackland — or another suitable location — to be put up for adoption. Second, it would have established a veterinary-care system for retired MWDs. And third, it would have reclassified MWDs as “canine members of the armed services” rather than “equipment,” allowing dogs that performed great acts of courage or merit to be recognized and decorated for their service.

So far, so good. Then money got in the way.

Blumenthal and Jones’s bill specifically stated that “funds provided by the Federal Government may not be used to provide veterinary care” for retired MWDs; they envisioned a system of private nonprofit care overseen by the Department of Defense. But that wasn’t frugal enough for the Senate Armed Services Committee. According to a Senate staffer who asked to remain anonymous to avoid complicating future negotiations over this issue, “Republican objections” effectively neutered the bill.

“The language that they ‘shall’ bring all animals back was changed to a ‘may’ because of objections over scoring,” the staffer tells Yahoo News. (“Scoring” is the legislative word for figuring out how much something will cost.) “If you have a requirement that you must bring every animal back, they have to come up with the funds to pay for it, but if you say that they ‘may’ bring every animal back and leave it to the Air Force’s discretion, it doesn’t cost anything.”

The veterinary-care provision was also gutted in committee: At some point, “the Secretary of Defense shall establish and maintain a system to provide for the veterinary care of retired military working dogs” became “the Secretary of Defense may establish and maintain a system to provide for the veterinary care of retired military working dogs.” And the reclassification provision was removed entirely.

The MWD community believes that Sen. John McCain of Arizona, then the ranking Republican on the Armed Services Committee, is to blame for the revisions. “I was told that when the bill got to the Senate, John McCain didn’t want to deal with it at all,” says Ron Aiello, a Vietnam veteran who now runs the U.S. War Dogs Association. “He said no. Dropping reclassification and changing those ‘shalls’ to ‘mays’ was the only way the bill could pass” — which it eventually did, in declawed form, as an amendment to 2013’s National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA). The military later took it upon itself to remove any references to MWDs as “equipment” from Air Force documentation, a process that was finally completed on March 6, 2015.

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Asked to clarify McCain’s position, an aide sent Yahoo News the following statement: “Senator McCain has had no personal involvement in any opposition to military working dog adoptions.” Of course, that leaves open the possibility that McCain opposed reclassification (which doesn’t have anything to do with adoption) and scoring (which is a fiscal issue rather than an adoption issue). McCain’s office has not responded to a request for further comment.

“They changed the language so they wouldn’t have to do anything,” explains Aiello. “Everybody was saying, ‘Oh, it’s so wonderful! It passed! These dogs are finally going to be taken care of!’ So I told people to read the bill, and I was right. It’s been a couple of years now. Nothing is happening.”

*****

Hoffman got the good news on Oct. 6, 2014 — her 29th birthday. She immediately posted it on Facebook. “Today we met with the doctor who has been giving Baddy radiation treatments,” she wrote. “The cancer cells in the area where it had started have been stopped. Baddy is now estimated to live at least two years instead of four months.”

She called it the “greatest present of my life.”

Over the prior three months, caring for Baddy — and finding a way to pay for his treatment — had become Hoffman’s second full-time job. She created a Facebook group (Baddy’s Fight) to raise awareness. She launched a GoFundMe campaign (Saving Baddy) to raise money. She walked the streets of Los Angeles every day, stapling Saving Baddy fliers to bulletin boards and telephone poles. She applied to every nonprofit she could think of: the Sage Foundation, Gizmo’s Gift, Combat Canines. Support and donations were beginning pour in. Natural Balance gave Baddy several bags of food; the Dog Bakery groomed him for free. GoFundMe donors would eventually pledge $10,470 — enough to pay for IMRT. And now Baddy’s prognosis was positive.

As Baddy underwent chemotherapy that fall to contain the cancer, Hoffman continued to post to Facebook. “Baddy has become his cheerful loving self again!” she wrote on Oct. 12. “Can’t let chemotherapy get him down!”

“Thankfully [Baddy’s] symptoms and after effects have been minimal!” she added 11 days later. “He has been running around playing with his toys!”

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Baddy with food donated by Natural Balance. (Photo: Courtesy Charlsie Hoffman)

“Yesterday was another miracle day!!” she reported right before Thanksgiving. “Dr. Downing informed me that the chemotherapy treatments had reduced the size of Baddy’s prostate.”

For a few months, things were looking up. But cancer is a cheat; it doesn’t play fair. And Baddy’s disease was no exception.

Right before Christmas, Hoffman brought Baddy back to the oncologist for a routine checkup. She was expecting another glowing report. But the doctor made a devastating discovery that day. The chemotherapy wasn’t working, he said. The cancer had spread to Baddy’s lungs and bones. His cancer was now considered terminal.

Baddy never fully recovered, and neither did Hoffman. For the next two months, the same morbid pattern kept repeating itself. Something would go wrong with Baddy, and then Hoffman would have to decide which response was right: helping him live or letting him die. When Baddy’s prostate swelled up again, blocking his urethra and making it impossible for him to urinate, Hoffman had to decide whether she should spend another $6,500 on surgery. When a second form of conventional chemotherapy failed like the first, she had to decide whether she should subject Baddy to a third, unconventional, form of chemo. And when Baddy’s left leg suddenly swelled to twice its normal size, she had to decide whether his doctors should try to fix the problem — even though it would probably just keep coming back.

At every turn, Hoffman chose to keep Baddy alive. She stopped counting when her veterinary bills crossed the $35,000 mark. From a distance, it’s tempting to say that Hoffman should have given up earlier — that the costs outweighed the benefits or that she was putting her own needs above Baddy’s. But that’s not how these relationships work in real life — especially not for military working dogs and their handlers.

“Having an MWD as a partner is so much more profound than having a pet,” Hoffman explains. “They work for you so selflessly. The amount they do for this country is humbling. And they do it all without asking for anything in return. You want to go the extra mile for them because you know they would do the same for you. So early on, I decided I’d rather go into debt with Baddy alive than be alive and know that I put Baddy down because I couldn’t afford to take care of him. The idea that money would decide whether Baddy lived or died was unfathomable. I could never accept that.”

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But eventually there was nothing more Hoffman could do. One morning in late February, Baddy started “acting really weird.” He was pacing around the house. He couldn’t settle. When Hoffman called his name, he barely noticed. At the hospital, the veterinarian ran one last set of tests. “The problem is blood clots,” she said. “We’ll never be able to get rid of them — and they are excruciating.”

The time had come. The doctors led Baddy in. Hoffman sat with him on the floor. For a few silent minutes, she cradled Baddy’s big head in her arms and stroked his soft tan coat. Then she stared into her partner’s dimming eyes and began to whisper to him. “I’m with you now, and I will always be with you,” she said. “You don’t have to suffer anymore.”

*****

Baddy died on Feb. 25, 2015. The government did nothing to try to save him; Hoffman did everything she could.

Fortunately, that’s not the end of the story. In the future, handlers like Hoffman may not have to plead for donations from strangers and sacrifice their life savings to give America’s canine veterans the care they deserve — and they may have the Red Bank Veterinary Hospital, the American Humane Association, and Ron Aiello’s U.S. War Dogs Association to thank. On Veterans Day 2014, the three organizations jointly announced a groundbreaking new program: From then on, every retired military working dog would be eligible to receive specialized veterinary care at any of Red Bank’s five New Jersey branches.

For free.

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Hoffman and Baddy. (Photo: Courtesy Charlsie Hoffman)

The U.S. War Dogs Association and the American Humane Association had already been working together to transport retired MWDs back to the United States and provide them with free prescription medication if necessary. But this was the most remarkable development yet. Washington, D.C. had fallen short, and now a private hospital chain — a business — was picking up the slack.

“We’ve been a successful company,” says Red Bank CEO Anthony DeCarlo. “That’s why we’re doing this. It takes a big commitment and a lot of resources, but I still think it’s worth doing. It’s always your job, once you’ve gotten somewhere, to give back.”

Baddy didn’t make it to New Jersey in time, but another dog did. An MWD named Jury completed two overseas tours of duty before retiring: one in the Philippines and one in Qatar for Operation Enduring Freedom. He performed countless bomb sweeps for Presidents Bush and Obama; he even swept Yankee Stadium when Pope Benedict XVI visited in April 2008. After retiring in 2014, Jury, an 11-year-old German shepherd, was diagnosed with both a malignant nasal tumor and a thyroid mass, a suspected carcinoma. As is the case with so many MWDs, his duties may have affected his health. “We need more studies to identify risk factors,” says Dr. Emily Beiting, a veterinary oncologist at the University of Tennessee. “But a link between exposure to chemicals and cancer development in this group of dogs is entirely possible.”

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Unlike so many other MWD caretakers, Jury’s adoptive owners didn’t have to wait for Washington. (Sen. Blumenthal and Rep. Jones plan to push to reinstate their original language — “shall” instead of “may” — in this year’s NDAA.) And unlike Hoffman, Jury’s owners didn’t have to go it alone. Earlier this year, they took Jury to Red Bank, and exactly one month after Baddy died, the hospital reported that the German shepherd was undergoing the same IMRT treatment that last year had extended the life, however briefly, of his Belgian Malinois brother in Los Angeles — at no cost to Jury’s owners.

“I think we owe it to those dogs who serve in such a capacity and then come home and should not be forgotten,” says Dr. Dustin Lewis, the radiation oncologist who tended to Jury. “I am absolutely honored to donate my time and my expertise to this sort of treatment.” 

“Our hope,” adds Aiello, “is that other veterinary hospitals around the country will see what Red Bank is doing and want to help.”

Hoffman agrees. She certainly doesn’t expect the government to contribute anytime soon. After Baddy died, Hoffman called the Department of Veterans Affairs. She was looking for information about funeral honors; she wanted to organize a memorial service for her fallen partner. But when she mentioned, through her tears, that she was calling about a dog, the man on the other end of the line simply hung up.

“I heard the click and was like, ‘Wow, I’m on my own on this one. I guess it wouldn’t be the first time,’” Hoffman says.

Baddy’s memorial service came together regardless. The local American Legion post offered its space, its chairs, its podium, and its flag — no questions asked. It even volunteered to buy snacks. A war-dog advocate named Helen Grant made a big photo collage of Baddy. The Patriot Guard Riders — a military-memorial nonprofit — created custom dog tags for the occasion; they also gave Baddy a 21-gun salute. And Hoffman’s fiancé flew out from Kansas.

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Baddy’s remains at his memorial. (Photo: Courtesy Charlsie Hoffman)

Hoffman was too distraught to deal with the logistics, but she managed to write and deliver the eulogy. She was already crying when she stepped to the podium in her Marine Corps dress uniform. A box of tissues was nearby.

“You were, and always will continue to be, the best part of me,” Hoffman said. “And I will always look up to you if ever I feel lost.” She turned her eyes toward the ceiling.

“Stand down, Marine,” she said. “You are relieved. You did your watch with honor.”

With additional reporting by Andrew Rothschild.

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