Local Lifestyle

Saturday, Mar 09 2013 12:15 PM

HERB BENHAM: From Army heroes to just a guy and his dog

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    By Casey Christie / The Californian

    Justin Fernanddez plays with his retired military working dog Geron at his home in Bakersfield.

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    By Casey Christie / The Californian

    Justin Fernandez plays with his retired military working dog, Geron, in his front yard after he was reunited with the former bomb-sniffing dog on Valentine's Day.

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By HERB BENHAM, Californian columnist hbenham@bakersfield.com

This dog is like the last number in "Les Miz": A showstopper. Geron can bring down the house and make people, at least every coffee buyer at Starbucks on a recent Monday morning, stop and marvel at what a beautiful dog he is.

Geron is a 7-year-old German shepherd. He looks like a wolf streaked with red highlights. His owner is Justin Fernandez, a square-shouldered 29-year-old deputy sheriff. Together in Iraq, they sniffed out five confirmed bombs (some were improvised explosive devices, or IEDs), saved countless lives, were blown up twice and received a Combat Action Badge.

"We spent 10 months together 24 hours a day," Fernandez said. "We got close."

They were a team in the Army and, after spending three years apart, become a team again on Valentine's Day.

Who doesn't love a dog story? Especially one with heroics and a happy ending.

'Best job in the Army'

Fernandez moved to Bakersfield in 2000 after finishing his senior year up north in Fairfield. His dad had taken a job in the oilfields with Nabors Drilling. Fernandez joined the Army shortly thereafter, making his first stint in Bakersfield fairly brief. He served for eight years as a military police officer.

After training at Fort Benning, he was deployed to Iraq for a year. Bakersfield was hot but nothing like this.

"I think we saw 54 celsius (129 degrees Fahrenheit)," Fernandez said. "That's on top of a helmet, 30 pounds of gear, body armor, long sleeves and pants.

After Iraq, Fernandez returned to Fort Benning for further training and, en route to South Korea, where he would be stationed, he attended canine school. If there was an opportunity to improve his skill set in the Army, Fernandez was on it like a dog on a T-bone.

"Being a dog handler was the best job in the Army," Fernandez said. "You're around a dog all day."

He worked with two dogs in Korea before getting Geron. Army dogs aren't cheap. According to Fernandez, the Army has invested close to $10,000 in Geron, including training and the flight from his birth place in Germany or Belgium.

Blast ends dog's career

Geron was trained to find explosives and did. Two were IEDs.

"The first was March of 2009 and was literally my second mission in the country," Fernandez said. "I was attached to a combat engineer platoon. We were searching fields that had been freshly plowed for planting crops. Geron and I searched the first two with no luck. Geron showed interest in another spot and the engineers, aided by a mine detector, found a bunch of weapons -- 72-mm Russian artillery rounds, a 12.5-mm Russian anti-aircraft gun, a rocket- propelled grenade launcher, eight RPGs, several rockets, grenades and thousands of rounds for guns."

The soldiers dug and blew up the explosives. On the way home, Fernandez was asleep in his military vehicle when he was awakened by an explosion on the same road they had traveled in on.

Five months later, Fernandez and Geron found a second IED. They were awaiting an explosives team to blow it up, when it blew first.

"Both times scared me. You never know when it's going to happen or how bad it is going to be," Fernandez said.

The bombs shattered Fernandez's eardrums and, in addition to rattling Geron, may have compressed a disc in the dog's back.

Geron's gait changed, becoming labored. Even with surgery and stints in the therapy pool at Lackland Air Force Base, Geron was finished. Normally, Army dogs work until they are 10, but Geron was retired at 4.

The call: 'Do you still want Geron?'

Meanwhile, Fernandez left the Army in February of 2010 and returned to Bakersfield. Eventually, he was hired as a deputy sheriff and now works in Boron.

But even with distance, time and his new career, he couldn't forget the dog that was his constant companion.

That's where the Army stepped in, with a program that reunites dog with handler once both have finished their service.

"It was hard to leave him in the first place," Fernandez said. "I would call Fort Lewis, where he was living, about once a month and asked if I could have him yet."

Eventually, the call came:

"Do you still want Geron?" the voice said.

Did he still want him? Does Geron have giant paws and a head bigger than a smart car?

Fernandez is grateful to Debbie Kandoll, who helps reunite military dog teams and paid $350 for Geron to fly from Washington to California.

Three years after they had last seen each other, the pair met again on Valentine's Day at the air cargo terminal at LAX.

They are a team again: the impressive German shepherd with reddish tints in his black and brown coat and the square-shouldered deputy.

Geron plays with Fernandez's chocolate lab, gets along with Fernandez's girlfriend, also a deputy sheriff, and even tolerates cats.

"Not all of these adoptions work," Fernandez said. "Geron is trained to attack, but he has a good on-and- off switch. Some dogs don't."

Fernandez had a mild case of post-traumatic stress disorder: some night sweats, hyper vigilance and occasional nightmares. Geron helps. The dog is never far from his side.

They are a team. Now, then and for the sweet dog days ahead.

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