Retired Utah war dogs continue to save and heal lives

Jim and Linda Crismer, who adopted two veteran military canines Mazzie and Geli from Kuwait, are photographed Wednesday, Aug. 28, 2019. The dogs were rescued part of an effort to save dogs abandoned by the U.S. military after their handlers return home from duty. (Rick Egan /The Salt Lake Tribune via AP)

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — Rep. Chris Stewart’s town hall meeting was rowdy. Some shouted. Some cried. People argued about gun control and President Donald Trump. Stewart even threatened to leave unless people were more civil. But one thing managed to bring a moment of peace and unity.

Stewart introduced a pair in the back who have struggled to adjust after serving in Kuwait. The crowd turned to see two retired war dogs, German shepherds Mazzie and Geli, who tucked their tails and looked down, unsettled by the raucous crowd.

Such “dogs were being abandoned, sometimes euthanized, because there wasn’t money appropriated to pay $2,000 to ship a dog home” after their handlers left, Stewart said. “How can you do that to any animal, any dog, let alone one who saved American lives?”

That divisive audience then paused to give Mazzie and Geli a heartfelt ovation. Two human veterans wearing hats that marked their own service gave sharp salutes to the dogs.

“They do touch people’s hearts,” said Linda Crismer, who with her husband, Jim, adopted the dogs. She said that even in retirement, the pets still save lives and help heal damaged people everywhere from gatherings of veterans to school assemblies, parades, visits to the sick or, in this case, an unruly town hall meeting.

Like many human vets, the dogs were traumatized by their service abroad — especially Mazzie, the first dog the Crismers adopted.

Linda Crismer, a 4th grade teacher nearing retirement, read to her students about the plight of such retired “contract dogs,” used abroad by contractors serving the military and often left in kennels when no longer used without medical care or much human interaction.

“When I announced I was retiring, the kids said, ‘Well you ought to get one because you won’t have anything to do,’ ” she says. So the Crismers applied to Mission K9 Rescue, a Texas-based nonprofit. Nine months later they were offered Mazzie. They don’t know much about his service, other than he was in Kuwait and was likely a drug-finding dog.

He had been neglected after his service ended. He was so underweight that he had been placed in a Texas foster home for three months, but even in those improved conditions didn’t eat much.

The Crismers found Mazzie preferred to stay in his crate. He would not sleep in the soft pet bed they bought him, only on hard floors. He did not want to leave their garage. He did not want to go on walks. “He cowered,” Linda Crismer says. “He would duck his head like he was expecting to be hit.”

The Crismers reached out to a business run by Jeremy Varela, a former Davis County Sheriff deputy who trains and has handled police dogs.

“At one point, I told Jeremy, ‘I’d like to know what Mazzie has seen.’ He said, ‘No. You really don’t want to know what that dog has done or seen or how he’s been treated,’ ” Linda says. “After we’d had him about six months, Jeremy told Jim this was the most seriously damaged dog mentally that he’s ever seen. Now he’s just a big baby.”

Mazzie now scampers and plays around the Crismer’s home in Fruit Heights with the younger Geli (who had a less difficult time adjusting, but also is still shy around others).

“This is his safe spot,” Jim says about Mazzie. But away from there, he still tucks his tail and avoids looking at people.

Linda recalls the first time Mazzie met a human veteran, when they took him to a pet-friendly sporting goods store hoping to help reduce his fear of people. Mazzie was wearing a vest identifying him as a retired war dog.

That made a passing Vietnam War veteran do a double-take, and then stop to talk.

After he heard how Mazzie apparently had been abused, “He got down on his knees and was holding Mazzie’s face,” Linda says. “He told Mazzie, ‘I know what it’s like to have been in a foreign country and be treated bad.’ Then he said, ‘But your mom and dad will make sure that you’re taken care of the rest of your life.’ “

The Crismers said it was the beginning of a discovery that Mazzie — and Geli when they also adopted her — seem to have a special bond with veterans.

For example, they were recently at a rally of vets on motorcycles.

“To see these motorcycle dudes in their vests and beards coming up and just loving these dogs was amazing,” Linda says. “It’s like they all speak their own language. They get face to face and they don’t need words. They just kind of communicate.”

Jim Crismer says he also saw that in another recent veteran’s parade in Colorado Springs, the home of several military installations. Mazzie and Geli were on a float with other retired war dogs.

“Veterans would stand up and salute that float,” Jim says. “One guy wearing a Marines T-shirt walked up and saluted, and said, ‘Those dogs saved my life.’ “

Once a vet insisted on donating his old sergeant stripes for the vest that Mazzie wears (even though the dog was technically a civilian working for government contractors), and his wife donated her Air Force stripes to Geli.

“He came back a little later and says, ‘I have one more thing to ask,’ ” Linda Crismer remembers. He handed them old steel bracelets used to remember prisoners of war or those missing in action. “These were for two of his comrades who were killed. So each dog now wears one on its vest.”

Mazzie and Geli have been adopted into Utah chapters of the Vietnam Veterans Association and the American Legion and are invited to many of their events.

Mazzie is soon to receive another honor on behalf of fallen war dogs. He has been chosen to be the model for a statue at Layton’s replica of the Vietnam War Memorial wall.

“About 4,000 war dogs were left when the United States withdrew from Vietnam. Probably the majority of them were euthanized,” Linda says. “That’s kind of a black mark against our government that we left all those dogs there. So they’ve decided to add a dog statue at the Vietnam War Memorial in Layton.”

Mazzie has his own Facebook page trying to help raise funds for the project.

The dogs also help civilians, not just vets. Jim says he surprised how many people cry and hug him when they hear the pair are retired war dogs, and how much children love them in school visits.

After one news story about them, a woman in Colorado started corresponding with the Crismers about the dogs. So when returning from a trip, they decided to let the dogs visit her.

“She told me she just found out she has cancer. She said, ‘But now my life is complete because I met Mazzie.’ It was heartbreaking and heartwarming at the same time,” Linda says. Later the lady called to say she changed her will to give money to the nonprofit that saves the dogs.

Mazzie and Geli even are able to bring politicians together in divided Washington, D.C.

Jim says the dogs met Stewart, the congressman, at a veterans event. The Crismers told him about a retired war dog in Korea that could not be brought home to his old handler — despite laws requiring it — because money had not been appropriated. Stewart, a member of the House Appropriations Committee and a veteran himself, said he would see what he could do.

“Like within a week, he had an amendment to the defense spending bill to appropriate $200,000 a year for military dogs,” Jim says. “And then within two weeks it passed the House, which is amazing since he is a Republican and Democrats control the House.” It soon passed the Senate. The money to help military dogs allowed nonprofits to do more for contractor dogs like Mazzie and Geli.

Stewart said the money — while it is still a lot to most people — is a drop in the bucket for appropriators. “And to save 100 or 150 of these animals and bring them home. it’s a cool thing.”

He pointing to the Crismers during the rowdy town hall meeting and said, “You are heroes. Thanks to people like you for bringing them home.”

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