By then, Daniel had been in Afghanistan two months. It was July 2012, his third tour of duty and his first with Oogie, his military working dog. They were leading their platoon on yet another patrol, clearing a no-name village with maybe 15 houses and one mosque, when they began taking fire.
“The first thing that went though my mind,” he says, “was, ‘S- -t. My dog’s gonna get shot.’ ”
It was a perfect L-shaped ambush, bullets coming from the front and the right, the platoon pinned down in a flat, open landscape. Along the road were shallow trenches, no more than 14 inches deep. Daniel grabbed Oogie, squeezed him in a hole, then threw himself over his dog.
It went against all his Army training. “They tell us it’s better for a dog to step on a bomb than a US soldier,” he says. The truth is Daniel, like just about every other dog handler in the armed forces, would rather take the hit himself.
Five weeks into their training, Daniel and Oogie were inseparable. They showered together. They went to the bathroom together. When Daniel ran on the treadmill, Oogie was on the one right next to him, running along.
That week, Daniel got Oogie’s paw print tattooed on his chest.
“The few times you safeguard your dog are slim compared to what he does every time you go outside the wire,” Daniel says. “That’s your dog. The dog saves you and saves your team. You’re walking behind this dog in known IED hot spots. In a firefight, the dog doesn’t understand.”
Bullets were coming closer now; the enemy had long ago picked up on how important the dogs were to the Americans, how successful they were at sniffing out bombs. “I know there were three separate incidents where they shot at Oogie,” Daniel says. And as he lay on top of his dog, he stroked him and whispered and kept him calm.
After five minutes, Daniel’s platoon pushed the enemy back and away, and the first thing Daniel did was get Oogie to shade. “He’s a black Lab, and it was very hot out,” he says. He strapped two big bags of saline to Oogie’s shoulders and hydrated him intravenously, then the two went back out to clear more villages.
“Oogie’s always ready to go,” Daniel says. “He’d hurt himself if I didn’t stop him — he has that much prey drive.”
In September 2012, Daniel and about 18 other soldiers boarded a flight back to North Carolina; their deployment was over.
Waiting on the tarmac were employees from a North Carolina-based company, K2 Solutions, which had the government contract for the dogs. Within moments of deplaning, the handlers got to pat their dogs on the head, say their goodbyes, then watch as the dogs — and all their equipment, down to their shredded leashes — were boarded on a truck and driven away.
“It’s a bunch of infantry guys, and no one wants to be the first to start crying,” Daniel says. “But it didn’t take long. There wasn’t a dry eye.”
The only solace these soldiers had was the knowledge that they could apply to adopt their dogs, and that the passage of Robby’s Law in November 2000 would protect that right.
More than three years later, Daniel still doesn’t have Oogie. The dog has vanished.
Daniel, who doesn’t want to use his real name because he’s on active duty, is one of at least 200 military handlers whose dogs were secretly dumped out to civilians by K2 Solutions in February 2014, a Post investigation has found.
At least three government workers were also involved and may have taken dogs for themselves.
It’s a scandal that continues to this day, with hundreds of handlers still searching for their dogs — and the Army, the Pentagon and K2 Solutions covering up what happened, and what may still be happening.
On Feb. 10, 2014, one of many adoption events was held on the grounds of K2 Solutions in Southern Pines, NC. The Army had recently ended its TEDD (Tactical Explosive Detection Dogs) program, and word quietly got out that “bomb dogs” would be available to civilians.
Kim Scarborough, 52, a project manager at East Carolina University, was one of them. “I called my husband and said, ‘K2’s dumping dogs. Do you mind if I go?’ ”
In quiet, well-manicured Southern Pines, K2 is a glamorous company. They own huge tracts of land where they covertly train dogs for combat, counterterrorism and catastrophes that will probably never occur in North Carolina. K2’s owner, Lane Kjellsen, is a cryptic figure who claims to be ex-special forces.
The company is privately held. Their website advertises dogs for sale, but it’s unclear whether they’re former military working dogs. K2 has trained dogs for both the TEDD program and the Marine Corps’ IDD (Improvised Explosive Device Detector Dog) program, and each canine has about $75,000 to $100,000 worth of training.
Multiple handlers told The Post that they have called and emailed K2 repeatedly about their dogs, submitting adoption paperwork as they were instructed to do. Yet they have been given little to no information, and at times deliberate misdirection, they say. Finding military dogs isn’t hard: They all have microchips, and the TEDD dogs have serial numbers tattooed on their ears.
These handlers also say K2 trainers who were with them in Iraq and Afghanistan told them they should contact K2, or K2 would contact them, once their dogs were available for adoption.
“When I contacted K2, they were like, ‘She’s gone and adopted out,’ ” says Brian Kornse, who did three tours of duty and has PTSD. “I got in contact with them in February of 2014” — the same month K2 was holding multiple adoption events.
Kornse believes his dog, a black Lab named Fistik, was given to a former Pentagon employee, Leo Gonnering, who may still have been working for the government in 2014. A man who left a voicemail for The Post from “Leo’s phone” said Gonnering “adopted the dog from the Army two years ago. He and his family have no intention of giving the dog up to his prior handler.” He named Kornse as the likely handler and has renamed the dog Mystic.
“I guess I had PTSD before, but I never really noticed till I gave Fistik up,” Kornse says. “I started having nightmares. I never experienced that before. She made everything better for me — that’s the best way I can describe it.”
Other handlers say K2 would tell them information about their dogs was “privileged” and instruct them to call Lackland Air Force Base in Texas. Staff at Lackland, they say, would send them right back to K2.
‘I guess I had PTSD before, but I never really noticed till I gave Fistik up … She made everything better for me — that’s the best way I can describe it.’
– Brian Kornse said about giving up his dog
“I called K2 in March 2014,” says a handler who asked to remain anonymous. “I said, ‘Can you please help me find my dog?’ They said, ‘No. Call Lackland.’ ”
This handler sent The Post an email exchange he had with Lackland. He asked for help, and a Sgt. Tia Jordan replied, “I’m sorry, but we don’t have any control over TEDD dog adoptions.” Under her signature is her office: the Military Working Dogs Adoptions and Dispositions Center.
“We got blown up together,” he says of his dog. “Before I was even done with training, I knew I’d try to adopt him.”
After months of obfuscation, many handlers give up, and they believe that’s what K2, and some in the Army, want. “I have PTSD and traumatic brain injury,” says Ryan Henderson, who has been searching for his dog, Satan, since 2014. “There are mornings I wake up with anxiety attacks. Dealing with normal life is more than I can handle anyway.”
Henderson says K2 told him Satan had been adopted by his second handler “and they could not give me his information due to privacy laws.”
He believes there’s a thriving black market for the dogs.
“Ninety dogs adopted out, at the same time, under suspicious circumstances?” he says. “Subcontractors are literally another layer of insulation to cover the BS.”
K2’s website offers a standard reply to service members looking for their dogs: “All of the dogs in the TEDD program belonged to the Army,” they state. K2 directs handlers to the Army’s Office of the Provost Marshal General.
At least one staffer from the OPMG, Robert Squires, was at K2’s adoption event on Feb. 10. Sources who were there tell The Post that Squires was overseeing it all. He also signed reams of paperwork, telling adopters that copies would be mailed to them.
That paperwork was never sent. According to emails obtained by The Post, both Squires and another OPMG staffer, Richard Vargus, jointly play dumb.
“Everyone was under the impression that they tried to locate the handlers,” Scarborough says.
Meanwhile, civilians in small North Carolina towns were electrified by the idea of owning a war dog — the ultimate status symbol — and several deputized themselves as prime “bomb dog” movers.
“On Feb. 7, I got a call from my dear friend . . . who asked me to help her with a favor,” Kinston, NC, resident Jean Culbreth wrote on Facebook on Feb. 19, 2014. “The favor was to place 72 retired bomb-sniffing dogs in new homes. Well, it’s 10 days later and I am BEYOND thrilled to say that 92 dogs have been adopted! And with the 11 Ralph and I took for the Lenoir Co. SPCA, I had a part in 103 adoptions in 10 days. Man, I wish we could do this every week. To all involved: GREAT JOB.”
When reached for comment, Culbreth hung up.
‘The biggest clusterf@#&’
When Scarborough arrived at K2’s adoption event, she was stunned. “I called my husband and said, ‘This is the biggest clusterf–k I’ve ever seen.’ We were a bunch of strangers who responded to Jean’s Facebook post.”
They had been told 140 dogs would be available, but just 30 were left. It was only 11 a.m. There were people claiming to be law enforcement who were not in uniform — and law enforcement was given first pick.
Some said they planned to contract out the dogs. One of the few officers in tiny Taylortown, population 1,012, took six dogs. Two men from Virginia, Dean Henderson and Jamie Solis, rolled up with a box truck and took 13.
“All of these dogs have PTSD,” Scarborough says. “Squires said that to me.”
None of the people who sought to adopt was vetted. None was asked what they planned to do with the dogs, or if they were capable of dealing with a dog with war wounds. None was asked whether they had small children.
“That was something that really bothered us,” says an ex-K2 employee who was there that day. He asked not to be identified. “The dog I have, it took me more than a year to calm her down. She was a TEDD. I wouldn’t let her be around children.”
He believes no civilian should ever be allowed to adopt a military working dog. “Civilians don’t understand what these dogs have been through in war,” he says.
‘That was something that really bothered us … Civilians don’t understand what these dogs have been through in war.’
– an ex-K2 employee
This employee says that during the event, he was “getting dogs out of the kennel and displaying them to people.” He knew it was wrong. “Too many civilians were getting dogs that should have gone to handlers. It wasn’t right.”
He says handlers were calling him constantly, complaining that the Army and K2 “keep losing my s- -t.” He also says K2 was in collusion with Army officials. “Squires was there and signing paperwork. He adopted two TEDD dogs. One was Fistik” — Kornse’s dog. Vargus, he says, “was the head of the program. He knew what was going on.” Vargus is also believed to have taken at least two dogs.
This employee says he kept Squires from taking at least one dog. “I talked to Squires and said, ‘I know this handler wants this dog.’ They let me take him.”
The Army confirmed to The Post that Vargus was in charge of policy of the TEDD program, but refused to comment on any involvement he, Squires or Gonnering had in these adoptions, or dogs they are alleged to have taken.
“All TEDD adoptions were performed in accordance with the law,” the Army said in a statement. “The Army will continue to carry out standard adoptions in accordance with the disposition procedures established by the law and the Department of Defense.”
Scars of war
Once Scarborough got her dog, Ben, she was directed to a room where an Army veterinarian was waiting. The dogs were getting five-minute exams — temperature, teeth checks — before being shunted off K2 grounds.
She was apparently the first civilian the doctor saw that day.
“They got to me and it stops,” she says. “The veterinarian was clearly very upset. She just stopped doing the exams.” The doctor left the room, but Scarborough and others could overhear her. Scarborough believes the veterinarian was on the phone with superiors.
“She was saying, ‘I don’t know what to do. This is not what we normally do.’ She was very disturbed, very distraught.”
After several hours, the veterinarian returned. The dogs remained muzzled the entire time. “She said she was told, ‘Let it go — proceed,’ ” Scarborough says. That doctor, Capt. Sarah T. Watkins, Branch OIC at Fort Bragg, signed Ben’s medical records.
Scarborough was given those along with her dog’s deployment records — something every handler who spoke with The Post had no idea existed. A copy obtained by The Post shows that next to each dog’s name and serial number is the name of their handler, refuting claims by the Army and K2 that tracking down a dog’s handler is too difficult.
Scarborough encountered similar stonewalling when she requested Ben’s military papers.
“There is no ‘official’ Army record since he was technically a contract dog,” Squires told Scarborough in an email dated July 25, 2014, “but by regulation he is classified as a Military Working Dog.”
Scarborough realized she had no business adopting Ben.
“It wasn’t till I got home that I said, ‘Oh, my God. I’ve got a bomb dog that couldn’t make it as a patrol dog and has PTSD.” She says that on the way home from the K2 adoption event, Ben freaked out when he heard sirens.
‘I’ve offered $5,000 cash, plus a new German shepherd of their choosing, for his return. I have heard nothing.’
– Army veteran Ryan Henderson
When he hears thunder, or gunfire — Scarborough and her husband live on a farm where they allow hunting — Ben races through the house and hides under her husband’s desk, or jumps into bed with her, “shaking like a leaf.”
Scarborough says she and Ben’s handler got in touch a few days ago with help from online group Justice for TEDD Handlers, run by Betsy Hampton, a civilian.
Scarborough says the handler is overwhelmed to have found Ben.
“He said to me, ‘That’s my Ben. That dog saved my life. I owe him.’ I mean, ladies from the Daughters of the American Revolution have these dogs,” she says. “If the handler wants Ben, it belongs to him. Period, the end.”
Handlers don’t typically get that response. Many who have found their dogs over social media are rebuffed. More than one has been told their dog ran away, or was hit by a car.
Army veteran Henderson has tracked his dog, Satan, to a family in Chocowinity, NC.
“I’ve offered $5,000 cash, plus a new German shepherd of their choosing, for his return,” Henderson says. “I have heard nothing. They refuse to contact me.”
Every handler The Post spoke with stressed this point: The dogs are not just dogs, or “equipment,” as the Army designates them. They are battle-scarred veterans who have saved lives.
‘Destroy the dogs’
The 13 dogs Dean Henderson and Jamie Solis took from K2 were, in fact, treated like outdated equipment. On the night of Feb. 10, 2014, the two men drove up to Currituck Kennels at Mt. Hope in Chester, Va., the dogs sliding around the back of their truck the whole way.
“Half of the dogs were on human Prozac and Xanax,” kennel master Greg Meredith tells The Post. “They were emaciated. They all had PTSD. One had an injury to his tail from shrapnel.”
The men told Meredith they were ex-Secret Service, had just bought the dogs for $30,000 each, and had a contract to sell them to the Panamanian government for twice that amount.
The paperwork given out at K2 that day included a document stating the adopter could not give a dog away, sell it, or profit from it. “If they lied to K2 and were planning to sell, they’d be in serious amounts of s- -t,” says the ex-K2 employee. “That’s illegal. And if K2 knew about that, that’s even more illegal.”
Seventeen months went by. Meredith had spent nearly $150,000 of his own money caring for the dogs and was broke. He pressed Henderson for help.
“Destroy the dogs” was the reply.
Meredith called K2, who sent him to Vargus. He provided The Post with emails between himself, Vargus and Squires.
In a phone call, “Vargus tells me they couldn’t determine who had ownership at that point — the contractors or DoD,” Meredith says. Vargus’ office is at the Pentagon, which houses the Department of Defense.
“He told me he was there when Dean and Jamie picked them up,” Meredith says. “He knows them. They’re known to him. I said, ‘I’ve been told these dogs can’t be re-purposed or resold, but Dean and Jamie told me they paid $30K a piece for these dogs.’ I said, ‘There’s a coverup going on here.’ ”
Henderson and Solis did not return calls for comment.
‘My best friend’
The handlers, understandably, trust no one. Adam Wopat served for five years and did two tours. He spent a year in combat with his dog, Heijn, in Kandahar.
On May 30, 2012, while sweeping a compound with the 4th Infantry Division, an IED went off. One soldier lost a leg. Another was medevaced out. Wopat was knocked back and unconscious, and Heijn was blown way behind him.
“Once I got up and came to my senses, I realized, ‘Oh, I still have a dog,’ because he had already returned to me and was laying down next to me.”
Wopat is crying now. “After we hit our one-month mark of training — it’s like when a son calls you ‘Daddy,’ ” he says.
Last year, Wopat was contacted by a man named John Moreno, who said he founded an organization called Operation Releash in May 2015 to reunite veterans with their dogs.
“He told me US Capitol Police had him. He told me they were going to fly us up on Veterans Day, and to wear a suit and tie,” Wopat recalls. Moreno said they were going to retire Heijn and re-home him with Wopat.
“On Oct. 19th, the day he told me to call him on his new cellphone, he ceases contact with me,” Wopat says.
Moreno is ex-K2. He most recently worked as executive director of the Worcester County Humane Society in Maryland, a position he left after six weeks. “He was not caring for the dogs,” a former colleague tells The Post.
Moreno confirms Wopat’s version of events. Asked why he disappeared, Moreno told The Post: “A lot of stuff was going on at the time. I wanted to be left alone.”
Former Marine Nick Beckham says he knows where his IDD dog, Lucky, is: Living with K2 CEO Lane Kjellsen in North Carolina. Beckham says he was tipped off by a K2 employee.
“K2 told me I had the right to adopt if I was the first handler and the dogs were retired,” Beckham says. “I called K2 and asked for paperwork. I filled it out and mailed it in and I never heard back. I emailed again — they never responded.”
Reached Wednesday, Kjellsen admitted many adoption events had taken place at K2. “Hundreds of dogs were adopted out,” he said. “Let me take that back. Not hundreds, but more than 100.”
He went on to claim that “K2 had nothing to do with adopting those dogs.”
Asked if he had an IDD dog named Lucky, he said, “Lucky? Is that true? Um . . . I don’t know. I do have a dog named Lucky.”
He then admitted he had sold Lucky to the Marine Corps, and, once retired, “the Marine Corps repeatedly reached out to the handler and had no luck. I properly adopted Lucky through normal channels. K2 didn’t handle any adoption paperwork.”
Kjellsen then suggested the Army was to blame for all the war dogs who have been wrongly and secretly re-homed, but he refused to give The Post specifics.
“I would say, ‘Get an official investigation and let me talk,’ ” Kjellsen says. “I’d tell them what the Army did. I can’t [tell you]. I need to be subpoenaed.”
Beckham is disconsolate to this day. “Lucky was my first and only dog,” he says. “He was my best friend.”