Thomas Calabrese — Nick Lannigan took a roundabout way to becoming a military dog handler and one that he never envisioned when he graduated from Escondido High School in 2010. He joined the Navy with the specific goal of becoming a SEAL. After completing his training, he was assigned to Team 2 under the command of Naval Special Warfare Group Two based in Little Creek, Virginia. Their primary focus was the Atlantic region, South America and Europe.
After three years with the team, tragedy struck when Nick’s parents were involved in a serious car accident near the Las Pulgas exit on Interstate Five, north of Oceanside, Ca. They were driving in the third lane 50 yards behind a tractor trailer truck that was in the far right one when it blew a front tire and quickly jackknifed directly into their path. Unable to swerve out of the way or brake, Alex Lannigan crashed into the trailer and the car rolled over several times. His father died at the site and his mother was seriously injured. After several emergency surgeries and thirty days at Tri- City Medical Center, Stacy Lannigan was transferred to a long term medical facility to continue her recovery.
Nick approached his Commanding Officer, Captain Andrew Sandoval, “I hate to leave my team, but I need to get back to the West Coast.”
“I offered you that option when the accident happened, but you said that you could handle it,” Captain Sandoval reminded Nick.
“I thought I could, but my mother is not making the type of progress that her doctors had hoped for,” Nick explained,” I’m an only child and the responsibility of looking out for her is mine alone. I wish things were different, but I have to accept the reality of the situation.”
“I didn’t ask you to defend your decision to stay last time and I’m not requesting that you justify it now. The Navy Seals are your family and we’ll be there for you in your time of need. I will honor your request.”
“Thank you Captain, Nick responded.
Two weeks later Nick was transferred to Coronado and assigned as an instructor so he would not be deployed. Six months after his return, his mother passed away and Nick felt that it was as much from a broken heart as it was from the complications caused by her injuries. He wasn’t raised to be a victim so he thought the best way to honor the memory of his parents was by re-dedicating himself to his mission.
“I’m ready to return to full duty.” Nick said.
“You don’t have to rush it, take all the time you need,” Commander Harding offered.
“I’m ready right now, just put me wherever you need me.”
“You got it,” Commander Harding said.
Nick was assigned to Seal Team Five and had completed five missions when his platoon was sent to Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center, Twentynine Palms to practice HALO (high altitude low opening) parachute jumps in preparation for a mission in the Philippines. The base was located in the Morongo Basin of the High Desert region of the Mojave Desert in Southern California and is the largest United States Marine Corps base.
On this particular exercise, Nick and his fellow Navy Seals would exit the plane at 30,000 feet with oxygen. HALO jumps are extremely dangerous. At high altitudes (greater than 22,000 feet) the partial pressure of oxygen in the Earth’s atmosphere is low and lack of pressure can lead to hypoxia. A typical HALO exercise requires a pre-breathing period (30-45 minutes) prior to the jump. Nick and his team were sitting in the hangar breathing 100% oxygen to flush nitrogen from their bloodstream. After the SEALS completed this, they put on polypropylene knit undergarments to prevent frostbite. The temperature that they would be jumping at could be as much as minus 50 below zero. Buck, the platoon combat dog would not be making the practice jump so there was no reason for him to practice since he was going to be tethered to his handler, Chief Petty Officer Hutchinson during the mission jump.
Everything went according to plan and the SEALS fell over 28,000 feet before opening their chutes when their altimeter indicated 1800 feet. Another additional risk with a low altitude opening is that if the parachute fails to deploy or the lines become entangled, there is less time to resort to the reserve or correct the malfunction. Nick had over a thousand jumps and did not panic when several of his lines got twisted. He straightened them out and got a full canopy by the time he had dropped to 600 feet. By now he had little time to make a course correction and instead of hitting the designated landing zone, he landed 800 yards due east of it in the middle of some large boulders and twisted his right knee on landing.
When he got back to his quarters, he put ice on his knee and elevated his leg. He thought he would be alright by the next morning, but instead it was swollen to twice its size. The reasonable thing to do would have been for Nick to pull himself off the mission, but instead he popped four over the counter Advil pain killers, slipped an elastic brace over his knee and told no one.
Abu Sayyaf was a radical Islamic extremist group and on July 23, 2014, leader Isnilion Hapilon swore an oath of loyalty to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of Isis and the group began kidnapping people for ransom. Their recent victims were a group of Christian missionaries and they were asking $5,000,000 for their safe return.
Bravo Team landed without detection and made their way through the dense foliage to their objective. Nick could not let his fellow SEALS down by telling them he couldn’t go on so he found the determination to continue. Aborting the mission was not an option he could live with. They engaged members of Abu Sayyaf and neutralized them. They rescued the hostages and proceeded to their escape route on the way to the extraction point. A large group of enemy fighters was in hot pursuit and would overtake the SEALs in less than an hour. Several of the hostages had been tortured and were too weak to travel fast so Nick approached Lieutenant Baxter, the team leader and stated the obvious, “They’re going to catch up to us.”
“I know,” Lieutenant Baxter sighed.
Nick offered an option, “Let me stay behind, I’ll slow them up enough for you to make it to the extraction point.”
“That’s crazy!” Lieutenant Baxter protested.”
Nick rolled up his pants to expose a badly swollen knee, “I can’t keep up. This way I can do some good. Getting the hostages to safety is the first priority.” Both men heard noise from down the trail and Nick added, “You don’t have much time, get going.”
Lieutenant Baxter saw an elevated area with rocks about twenty yards off the trail, “Get up there and that will give you the best field of fire. We’ll be back for you.”
Nick struggled to make his way up to the rocks as he dragged his injured leg behind him. Buck, the combat dog ran over and licked his face. “I’m going to miss you too.”
Chief Petty Officer Hutchinson called out, “Let’s go Buck.”
Just before he left, Lieutenant Baxter gave Nick some extra ammunition and grenades and the Navy SEALS made their way down the trail with the hostages. Nick found a level place to lie down and set eight grenades on the ground next to him. He knew what would happen to him if he was captured so he was saving the last grenade for himself. As the enemy fighters came into view, Nick shot four of them and threw a grenade as far as he could. For 30 minutes he kept the terrorists pinned down with well-placed shots, but he was running out of ammunition. He had also been wounded twice, once in the upper left arm and once in the right shoulder and could barely hold his weapon steady as he continued losing blood. If there was any good news about the dire situation, it was that the bullet wounds took his mind off the pain in his knee.
The enemy fighters were moving closer to his position so Nick pulled the pin on the last grenade and held it in his hand and waited for them. Suddenly he heard gunfire coming from up the trail and saw his team coming back for him. He put the pin back in the grenade and lapsed into unconsciousness.
After he was medically evacuated, it was determined that his knee needed major orthopedic surgery. While recovering at the Naval Hospital at Pearl Harbor his team, including Buck came to visit him. Buck jumped up in the bed and started licking his face, “Good to see you too.”
Lieutenant Baxter commented, “I put you in for the Navy Cross.”
“If you would have gotten yourself zapped, it would have been the Congressional Medal of Honor,” Senior Chief Larabee joked.
“Next time I’ll make myself a better target.”
The Navy wanted to medically discharge Nick, but he fought to stay in the Navy and Commander Harding interceded in his behalf. He explained the situation, “I can temporarily assign you to another position while you recover, but if you want to get back on the team, you’re going have to prove that you can still do the job. I could only get you six months, but after that you’re on your own.”
“I wouldn’t have it any other way,” Nick responded, “Thanks for standing up for me.”
“You know the former SEAL, Rick Bergeron?”
“Yeah, the last that I heard he was training dogs?
“Still is, he’s leasing two hundred acres on Camp Pendleton. I know you like dogs so I’ve assigned you as liaison to the teams. Basically you’ll be up there to observe and recommend any of the animals to the teams.”
“Sounds like pretty easy duty,” Nick responded.
“Easy, but very important. The other reason I’m sending you to Pendleton is that there’s a physical therapist at the Wounded Warrior complex whose had surprisingly good success bringing injured warriors back to functionality…I guess that’s the right word. I called and told him about you and he’ll be expecting your call,” Commander Harding explained.
“Once again, I thank you.”
“Good luck Nick,” Commander Harding smiled, “Remember, the only easy day is yesterday.”
Nick never served with Rick Bergeron, but a former Navy SEAL and a current one was still a very strong bond. Once he got to the facility in the most isolated area of Camp Pendleton, Nick wasn’t going to just sit around and watch so he started gradually taking on as much as his injuries would allow.
When he wasn’t at the dog training facility, he was working with Travis Kelly. The physical therapist had Nick walking in the ocean in water up to his knees, doing yoga and put him on a strict anti-inflammatory diet. There was one problem though. as Travis indicated after three months of intense rehab, “The big problem that I have dealing with top tier operators is not getting you guys to put the necessary effort in, its getting you not to double, triple or quadruple everything I recommend. Remember that in physical rehabilitation, more is not always more…so take it easy will you.”
“Copy that,” Nick shrugged.
While on a mission in Afghanistan, Nick’s former team lost two men during a fierce firefight with the Taliban. Chief Petty Officer Hutchinson, the dog handler was one of the fatalities and after his death, Buck went into a severe depression. It was hoped that maybe the combat dog could be re-trained or adopted so he was sent to Rick Bergeron’s facility for evaluation. The last option was that the animal be put down.
When Buck arrived, Nick was waiting for him and he could see that the dog was grief stricken. He helped him slowly adapt to life without his beloved handler by sitting with him and gently stroking his head while talking in a soothing voice, “I know it’s tough to go on, but this is the life that we’ve chosen, actually in your case, the life that’s been chosen for you. We never get over those that we lose, but we honor their memory by going on and doing our jobs.”
Buck picked up his head and laid it on Nick’s lap. This was his way of telling the Navy Seal that he understood and was finally ready to move on. From that day forward, Nick and Buck were inseparable as both man and animal shared the same goal of getting back to full duty.
Nick took an extensive physical fitness test at the end of six months and passed with flying colors. Commander Harding congratulated him as Buck stood by his side, “Welcome back, looks like he’s ready too.”
“Yes sir, we’re both eager to return to duty.”
“How would you like to be the team’s dog handler?”
“It’s fine with me as long as Buck is the dog,”
Over the next eighteen months, Nick and Buck deployed three times and went on numerous patrols. They were more than just handler and dog, there was a bond between them that was unbreakable. During their last deployment in Afghanistan Intel reported that Muhamned Omar Fazlullah, an infamous bombmaker, responsible for a string of terrorist attacks throughout Europe was in the area. Bravo Team was sent out to connect with community elders to find out if they knew anything.
Nick and Buck assumed their customary patrol position—walking in front of the others to clear the road ahead and every team member knew that Buck would keep them safe. They entered a grape field and were a little more than a mile outside the outpost when Nick noticed changes in Buck’s behavior, his ears perked up, his tail stiffened and his sniffing of the ground intensified. He was sure that his canine partner had picked up the odor of an IED so he signaled the team to hold their positions. A few seconds later they came under attack from several positions as the Taliban fighters directed their fire at the main column. Nick heard whistling sounds, high and fast, flying past him from two different directions and recognized it as light anti-tank rockets. The Navy Seals were caught in a deadly crossfire and they were hugging the ground as they tried to figure out which way to go. In the confusion of battle Nick and Buck slipped away without being noticed. Nick got behind the first rocket position, opened fire and killed all six fighters. The second rocket position was on the other side of the field and would require Nick to run through open terrain to reach it.
“This is what they pay us for,” Nick patted Buck’s head and they took off at a full sprint, zigzagging along the way with bullets nipping at their heels. They had almost made it completely across when machine gun fire gravely wounded both of them. They had just enough strength to jump into the second rocket launching’s position where Nick shot four men and Buck killed the last fighter by severing his carotid artery with a well-placed bite. Buck crawled over to where Nick had fallen to the ground and rested his head next to his.
The next thing Nick knew was that he was walking down a dirt road with Buck at his side. The environment was barren, the sky was cloudy and there was a chill in the air. With every labored step that he took Nick was felt pain in some part of his body. He was also hungry, his throat was parched and he had a terrible headache. Nick looked down at Buck, “I hope you don’t feel as bad as I do. Exactly where is this and how’d we get here?”
As he came over the hill, Nick saw this lush oasis with swaying palm trees and waterfalls behind a large fence. The sun was shining brightly and people were sitting at tables eating, drinking and enjoying themselves. Farther down the road, there was a closed gate with a beautiful raven haired woman with glistening green eyes standing before it. She smiled invitingly when she saw the Navy Seal and called out “Nicholas Lannigan! Welcome, we’ve been waiting for you.”
When Nick looked closer he saw his mother, father and his fallen comrades waving to him from behind the fence. Is this…”
The woman interrupted, “Your just rewards are inside; your family, friends, food, drink, health, happiness. No more pain, suffering and everything you’ve ever wanted is right inside this gate so step on in and join the festivities.”
“Thanks, appreciate it.” Nick and Buck started to enter, but the woman stopped him, “No dogs allowed.”
“What do you mean, no dogs,” Nick protested.
“We’ve got a place for them. You’ll be so busy you won’t even think about him,” The woman promised.
As Nick looked in, several women walked by carrying full plates of foods. They were so close that Nick smelled the tantalizing aroma and wanted to reach out and grab some. His stomach rumbled for nourishment, but Nick fought the temptation and kept his hands by his side.
The woman cooed, “Just leave the dog out here and you’re welcome to have your fill of everything that you’ve ever wanted. There is no reason not to have it; after all it is just a dog.”
“What is down this road?” Nick asked.
“Nothing good,” The women warned.
“You’re sure you won’t let my dog in?” Nick asked.
“We have our rules and there are no exceptions,” The woman answered.
“If it is too good for Buck then it is too good for me, we’ll be moving on.”
“You’re making a mistake, but if you change your mind, come back.”
As Nick and Buck walked off, he heard the voices of his parents and deceased friends beckoning him to return but he ignored their calls and kept going. It got colder as he walked then all of a sudden it got extremely hot. Nick’s throat was so dry that he couldn’t swallow and his legs hurt so bad that he could barely stand. Every time he felt like giving up, all Nick had to do was look down at Buck and he found the strength to take one more step while repeating in his mind, “One more step, left foot, right foot.”
While walking over rocky terrain, Buck began limping and despite his weakened state, Nick did not hesitate to reach down and pick up his beloved canine friend and begin carrying him. This time when he came over the ridge and saw another oasis, a breathtakingly beautiful blonde woman with expressive blue eyes was standing in front of a gate with a warm smile, “Welcome Nick…we’ve been expecting you.” She placed a bowl of water on the ground for Buck and gave Nick a full glass; amazingly the first sip instantaneously quenched their burning thirst.
“I already told that other lady that I’m not coming anywhere without my dog so don’t waste your breath offering me a bunch of crap or giving me a timeshare sales pitch. I don’t care what you call this place, we’ll keep moving on until we find a somewhere where we’re welcome.”
“Just for your own clarification, we’re not the same place as the one down the road. The Devil likes to trick top tier operators into betraying their code of honor and dog handlers are at the top of his list. He’ll pull out all the stops to get you to leave your dog behind.”
“Why is that?” Nick asked.
“Dogs cannot get into hell because they represent the purest example of unconditional love. They would just destroy the ambiance of fire, brimstone and hate that is the Devil’s brand,” The woman explained.
“What’s this road that I’ve been walking on, does it have name?”
“It is called many things; Purgatory, path of resistance, the crucible, salvation alley, limbo, but I call it the ‘last exit to free will.’ God wanted to give you every opportunity and every motivation to change your mind and succumb to temptation. When he saw that wasn’t ever going to happen, he said to me, ‘Go get that Navy SEAL and his dog.”
Nick embraced his faithful companion and looked directly at the woman and even in his weakened state there was no room for compromise in this American warrior, “I don’t want any misunderstandings; are you are saying that Buck can go with me?”
The woman smiled and the cloudy sky turned crystal blue as rays of sunshine engulfed the trio. “Excuse my language, but hell yes, heaven loves dogs.”