Dogs are sometimes man’s best soldier.
The U.S. military deploys hundreds of specially trained dogs to sniff out bombs, weapons and drugs. Many served in the worst years of the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts, and suffered the same fate as their human counterparts: death in combat, PTSD, traumatic injuries.
Often, the young men who partnered with these dogs yearn to adopt them -- but it takes money, time, and the ability to navigate bureaucracies.
Enter Molli Oliver.
A United Airlines flight attendant for more than four decades, she happened into conversation with a Marine on a United military charter flight to Germany last year, Sgt. Andrew Mulherron. He was en route to a deployment to Iraq, and reminisced about Boone, the black lab he worked with five years earlier in Afghanistan and couldn’t forget.
The two walked point together, lost unit members together and shared a Navy Marine Corps Achievement Medal—partly for the 11 improvised bombs they located before anyone was killed. The National Museum of the Marine Corps holds in its collection a painting of Mulherron and Boone resting on a patrol, surrounded by the poppies, the crop that finances Taliban weaponry.
Oliver was moved. 'Well, where is the dog? I'll get him for you,'" she recalled telling him.
Boone, now retired, was at Fort Leonard Wood in Missouri, where dogs are trained for combat missions. Oliver helped arrange for Mulherron and his family to adopt Boone. When Mulherron returned to California last October, she flew the dog there at her own expense.
The old combat buddies had a rapturous reunion at his battalion’s welcome back party at the Marine base at Twentynine Palms.
Along the way, Oliver managed to bring together Gordo and Army Sgt. Seth Rodenberger. Both earned Bronze Stars for their service in Afghanistan.
"I love the dogs, and I love my military that's taken care of my freedom my whole life, so it's a win-win to combine the two," Oliver, 65, told NBC’s Nightly News. The show interviewed her this summer, as she was bringing about her fourth reunion: Army Sgt. Tom Hansen and Taylor, a yellow lab she flew first-class into Boise, Idaho.
Hansen waited, hat in hand, like a nervous suitor for the comrade he called Princess Tay-tay. "It's like a part of me has been missing, and you know getting her back now it will make me whole again," he said.
“I’m very lucky I came back with all my limbs,” Hansen said to the Idaho Statesman. “I thank her for it. She’s who I have. It’s because of her I came back alive. I wouldn’t have asked for anybody else.”
Hansen is now helping Oliver raise funds on YouCaring.com, and working with her to start a charitable nonprofit, MUMS Dogs (Molli’s Uniting Military Service Dogs).
Hers is not the only effort to do right by military working dogs. Mission K9 Rescue is a leader in reuniting them with their former handlers, or trying to find them homes otherwise if needed. The group has welcomed Oliver as a fellow traveler.
And her work goes on. Most recently, in July, she brought Staff Sgt. Derrek Green, 26, back together with Zeva, a black lab, in El Paso, Tex., a moment captured by The Associated Press.
"It was emotional," said Green. "At one point I almost started crying, but I fought back those tears."