For four years, not a day went by where Marine Corporal Jeff DeYoung didn’t think about Cena. DeYoung first met the black Labrador Retriever and Military Working Dog (MWD) when they were served together overseas in Afghanistan.
“This dog saved my life,” DeYoung tells Click on Detroit of Cena. “I trust him more than I trust most human beings.”
Though Cena and DeYoung became a team as part of a random selection process, for DeYoung, the matchup seemed like fate. Starting in July 2009, the pair trained together to detect improvised explosive devices, or IEDs, on the battlefield. Cena became a detection expert, trained to find more than 300 different types of explosives and more than 1,000 different scents. On more than one occasion, DeYoung says, Cena used his nose and uncovered dangerous bombs, saving countless lives.
“When he found the scent, he would lie down and would look at me,” DeYoung tells ABC News. “At that time, I knew within six feet of that area was a bomb.”
But Cena also served a special role during DeYoung’s time in Afghanistan. The bond the soldier formed with his MWD helped DeYoung stay positive, even through the most difficult days of his deployment. DeYoung says he would have been lost without his four-legged friend.
“My main goal was to protect him,” DeYoung says of Cena, who he nicknamed “Chicken.” “I remember we would get into firefights and having to cover myself on top of him so he wouldn’t get harm.”
“It was all about him,” the soldier says of his canine partner.
Side by side, Cpl. DeYoung and Cena spent every day fighting to survive, keeping each other company.
“We slept together in fighting holes. We ate the same food. He drank out of my water system. I carried him across rivers. We had a hail storm and a dust storm and I had to cover myself on top of him,” DeYoung remembers.
But after months together, the duo’s time came to a close. DeYoung and Cena last saw each other in April 2010 after touching down in North Carolina.
“We never got to say goodbye,” DeYoung tells the Detroit Free Press, explaining that the military thought it would be easier for both the soldier and the MWD.
“I didn’t agree,” says DeYoung, for whom the separation from his dog was particularly difficult.
“We got on the bus and drove away and he was still on the plane. And a half an hour earlier, I was sitting across from him on a seat. So it was very shocking, and I didn’t deal with it well,” DeYoung tells WoodTV.com of that difficult day.
While Cpl. DeYoung returned home to his family in Muskegon, Michigan, Cena continued to serve as a working MWD. Meanwhile, DeYoung and his wife Lindsay welcomed two daughters and now have a third one on the way. But DeYoung never forgot the dog he calls his “brother,” hoping one day he would have the chance to introduce Cena to his children.
“I would daydream about going on car rides with him. I would go to the pet store and ask to pet black Labradors,” Cpl. DeYoung says.
Even years after their parting, DeYoung talks often of Cena, and Lindsay knows that if it weren’t for the loyal Lab, her husband might not have made it home from war.
“I don’t know what we would do without that dog,” Lindsay says. “Honestly, everything they’ve been through, everything, you know the fire fights…the dog saved my husband’s life.”
Finally, after four long years apart, DeYoung got the news he’d been waiting for — Cena was retiring from military duty and was looking for a forever home. DeYoung jumped at the chance to adopt the hero dog. He contacted Mission K9 Rescue, a Houston, Texas, group that assists in reuniting military dog handlers with their canine partners, and arranged to adopt Cena, now 6-years-old.
On June 5, Cpl. DeYoung and his family waited anxiously as Mission K9 Rescue president Kristen Maurer escorted Cena to the Detroit Metro Airport.
“It’s all Christmases rolled into one. I dreamed of this for four years and now it’s happening,” DeYoung tells MLive.com of the long-awaited reunion.
While Cpl. DeYoung initially worried that his old buddy wouldn’t remember him, he soon realized he had no reason to fear. As soon as Cena saw DeYoung, Cena ran up and nuzzled him.
The DeYoung family, including Golden Retriever Lucie, was thrilled to welcome Cena home at last. They plan to give Cena a queen sized bed to sleep on and all the love the retired MWD-turned-family dog needs. Cpl. DeYoung even saved some of Cena’s favorite vegetable omelet MREs for the lovable Lab to enjoy.
“He’ll always have an honored place in my family,” says DeYoung.