Friday, October 3, 2008

Coast Guard bids sad farewell to dog hero

A touching story from the Contra Costa Times:

By Lucinda Ryan
Article Launched: 10/02/2008 05:43:58 PM PDT

The yellow Labrador, outfitted in a badged U.S. Coast Guard vest, stood smiling that friendly lab smile at his retirement ceremony Thursday.

The picnic table in the park area at Coast Guard Island, Alameda, was set with the usual outdoor party fare of hot dogs and chips and soft drinks, but most of the roughly 100 people weren't snacking.

Hawk, his front leg occasionally involuntarily folding inward, remained happily near his steady companion and handler, Boatswain's Mate 2 Sandor Csitar, who, by the end of the ceremony, was unable to speak when the moment came to make his address.

By then, the words and memorial gifts from his Coast Guard peers, Alameda and Oakland police departments and other law enforcement agencies had moved Csitar to tears. He beckoned to Coast Guard Lt. Cmdr. Greg Thomas, who stepped to Csitar's side, patted his shoulder, and said a few words for him.

"Words can't express our loss, or our joy," Thomas said.

At age 6, Hawk is retiring from his service as an explosives-search dog. Such occasions are not always so emotional, but Hawk has been diagnosed with terminal brain cancer, and this day of honor came one day before he would be euthanized at Travis Air Force Base, before his quality of life further diminished.

The gentle dog has in his four-year career found fireworks, submachine guns, handguns, live artillery and narcotics. He has searched baggage, freight, aircraft, piers, people and buildings to protect former presidents and foreign dignitaries. He took a trip to New Orleans where he searched through facilities.

Hawk first met Csitar in 2004 after being trained in search and rescue. His trainer donated him to the Customs and Border Protection training center in 2003. The two trained together for four months and Hawk officially went to work with Csitar on Dec. 23, 2004.

Csitar said of the many memories of working with Hawk among the best were when he worked with other law enforcement agencies, such as Alameda, Oakland and Berkeley police and the county sheriff's office. Besides the benefit of learning more ways to handle service dogs, it was the camaraderie, he said, gesturing toward several attending officers from those police departments.

Before the addresses began on the lawn, Csitar looked down as someone kneeled and petted Hawk, who gladly accepted the stranger's touch.

"He has no problem being gentle," Csitar said. "He's got nothing but gentle."

Csitar's 10-year-old stepson, Steel Jones, came up to stroke Hawk, who clearly was enjoying the visits from family and strangers.

Speaking of Hawk after the ceremony, Thomas said, "He literally worked himself to death for us."

Coast Guard Chief Clifford Fuller recalled his first meeting with Hawk.

"Three years ago when I first reported to Alameda for duty and saw the Canine Team was under my supervision, Sandor introduced me to Hawk, and Hawk (got up on his hind legs) and shed all over me," Fuller said. "I didn't know there was fur on my uniform and when I went to the CEO's office later, he said. 'I didn't know we had mohair uniforms.'"

"If someone decided to have a good Samaritan hanging around, they put him in the right place at the right time. He's one of those people who always helps out, whether it has anything to do with the Coast Guard or not," Fuller said of Csitar.

Hawk was awarded a citation of outstanding achievement for his work. After noting the details of his service, the document notes his presence after hurricanes Katrina and Rita.

"As a direct result of his positive attitude and unfailing spirit, his role as a canine was invaluable providing much needed stress relief and positive reinforcement to rescue workers, displaced families and distraught children in the area," the citation says.

After the speeches and awards, Hawk quietly lay on the grass, again enjoying the company of his young friend Steel.

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