“Mex,” a retired military German Shepherd, was 5 years old when Colbert couple Melanie and Lamar Hughston picked him up in Orlando, Fla. for the trip to his new home and family in Ohio.
A retired CWD (contract working dog), Mex had spent most of his days outdoors in Afghanistan where he served as a guard and narcotics dog at a military base. Diagnosed with severe hip dysplasia and canine degenerative myelopathy in the summer of 2012, Mex was subsequently retired and sent home to United States. In the meantime, Cheryl and Bob Ross, of Utica, OH, who had been sending care packages to K9 service dogs and their handlers, heard about Mission K9 that helps place these retired service dogs in “forever homes” and decided they’d like to welcome one into their own home.
Enter the Hughstons on their first rescue trip, though it was not to be their last.
Since that first rescue mission in 2012, the Hughston’s have facilitated the adoptions of three other retired miltiary/law enforcement dogs, including their most recent one, a Belgian Malinois named Brando, who they took to an adoptive home in Pennsylvania earlier this month.
The Hughstons, who are both retired from careers in the federal prison system (Lamar is also a retired Marine drill sergeant), moved to Colbert from Colorado nine years ago to be near family.
The couple immediately began to look for ways to serve their new community.
Mr. Hughston serves on the planning and zoning committee and both serve on the county jail committee to help plan the jail expansion.
They also assisted with the opening of a bakery in Lawrenceville called “Special Kneads and Treats” that employs and empowers special needs adults providing the community with treats for all occasions with a focus on food ministries, homeless shelters, the elderly and others.
Both animal lovers, they also wanted to find ways to assist dogs in need. They began by volunteering at Pawtropolis’s rescue “Helping Paws” in Athens and other local shelters and rescues, and by taking in strays and abandoned dogs as fosters. They even fostered dogs confiscated in a raid on a puppy mill in Nicholson a few years ago.
In 2012, they became involved with Mission K9 Rescue, a group that facilitates adoptions of retired and injured service dogs through AMK9 (American K-9 Detection Services), a company that recruits and trains dogs for the military, law enforcement and other agencies, when they heard about the Ross’s and their quest to adopt a retired service dog.
After an adoption was approved by Missioin K9’s adoption coordinator for the Ross family, the Hughstons made arrangements to drive to Orlando to pick up Mex from AMK9 and transport him, at their own expense, to the Ross’s home in Ohio.
The Ross’s were able to care for Mex for just over a year, before his illness overtook him. Despite this, Mrs. Ross wrote in an email that it was a rewarding experience for her and her family.
“We witnessed many times the people who met him or read his story that were touched by this strength and determination,” Ross wrote in an email. “He, like other K9 heroes, save countless lives on the battlefied. Everyone tells us he was lucky to have us, but it’s the other way around.
We were the lucky ones.” Ross went on to write that helping such dogs as Mex would not be possible without the “amazing people” at AMK9, who train and assist the U.S. Military around the world, Mission K9 Rescue and people like the Hughstons who volunteer their time, home and go on very long drives to bring these “retirees” to their “forever homes.”
“I know they won’t take any credit, but Lamar and Melanie are heroes in my eyes,” she said.
On June 11, 2013, a few months before his passing, “Mex” received the United States Military Working Dog Service Award for dogs who have supported the U.S. Military in a combat zone. Of his death, Ross wrote, “At 5:35 p.m. Friday, November 1, our precious boy Mex crossed over the rainbow bridge. I am so heartbroken. He put up a good fight. He touched everyone who met him.”
The Rosses remain good friends with the Hughstons and say they will be forever grateful.
Mr. Hughston said they always planned to become involved with helping veterans at some point, it’s just that it turned out to be the four-legged kind.
“We’re not rich and we don’t have a lot of stuff, but what we do have is time and love, and we gladly give it,” Mrs. Hughston said. “After all, these dogs have saved lives, they’re soldiers. We’re just driving a car with a dog in the back. To me, it’s the folks that take these dogs into their homes that are the heroes.”
The couple used to have dogs of their own, in fact they had two elderly dachshunds who had just passed away when they began their work with Mission K9. They have consciously made the choice not to have any dogs of their own at this point in their lives.
“Most of these dogs are retired because they’re injured,” Mr. Hughston said. “We feel like we can give more to them if they have our full attention while they are with us.” Mrs. Hughston says they also don’t want to have to worry about how the dogs they bring home for a few days might interact with their own dogs.
“It’s all about what’s best for these dogs,” Mrs. Hughston said. “Of course it’s hard to let them go, but we couldn’t help as many if we didn’t let them go to another good home.”
And just because the dogs are no longer in their homes doesn’t mean they’re forgotten.
“We are friends with every family we’ve adopted to,” Mrs. Hughston said.
Sometimes Mission K9, with help from folks like the Hughstons, is even able to reunite service dogs with former handlers. One such dog is “Titan,” who also served in Afghanistan with his partner and handler Chris Simpson. After he was discharged, Simpson fought to adopt Titan.
Once the adoption was approved, the Hughstons picked up Titan at the AMK9 kennels in Orlando, and spent a few days with him in their home in Colbert before taking him on to Simpson’s home in North Carolina.
Mrs. Hughston said each dog they have had has their own personality traits.
“For example, Titan wouldn’t let you in the house until he had ‘scouted it’ and made sure it was safe for you to enter,” Melanie said. Some must sniff the wheel well of every vehicle they pass, others startle at the slightest noise and most have to learn how to play and not to be “on duty” all the time.
“They all do best when they have a job,” Melanie said. The difference is that where that job may once have been to sniff out drugs or detect bombs, now that job is to fetch the ball, watch over the kids, or walk the neighborhood with their owner.
And as for Brando, their latest “guest,” he has settled nicely into his new home with Anne Yeager in Pennsylvania, who has six other retired service dogs.
“There’s so much need out there of every kind,” Melanie said. “We just want to help and this is a passion for us, matching these dogs with people who will love them and give them a home of their own.”
For more information on getting involved or donating to this program go to www.missionk9rescue.org.
Mission K9 is a nonprofit organization that serves retiring and retired Military Working Dogs, Contract Working Dogs and others. The organization provides assistance and support for Working Dogs worldwide through monetary donations, transportation, adoption and professional assistance.
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