British mourners traditionally give a respectful silent salute to slain soldiers, but today they were joined by dog owners who brought their dogs to the grim arrival of Lance Corporal Liam Tasker and his bomb sniffing dog Theo.
Tasker, 26, died in a firefight on March 1 in Helmand province with Theo by his side. The dog, a springer spaniel, suffered a seizure from the stress and died hours later after being returned to base, according to the British Ministry of Defense.
Tasker's body and the ashes of Theo were returned today on the same military plane to RAF Lyneham in Wiltshire, England.
Residents of Wootton Bassett, near Lyneham, lined the streets when Tasker's coffin, draped with the British Union Jack, passed through the town on its way to Oxford, where soldiers' bodies are examined by a coroner before being returned to families.
Villagers traditionally greet the casket with a solemn moment of silence. It's a ritual of respect that began more than two years ago, explained a local government employee.
"It just happened," she said, beginning initially with veterans who would gather around the town's war memorial when a coffin passed. "They raised their caps…that's how it all started," she said.
But when the bells of St. Bartholomew's Church tolled today, the mourners included devastated dog handlers and their animals, she said.
Tasker and Theo had worked together uncovering roadside bombs in Afghanistan and were remarkably successful, finding 14 bombs meant to kill and maim British soldiers.
They had more operational finds than any other individual team in Afghanistan to date, the Ministry of Defense said. They were featured in a video released by the Army before Tasker's death, showing a perky Theo on patrol with his handler.
The two were so good at what they were doing that their tour of duty had been extended by a month.
Theo, 22 months old and on his first tour of duty, was with Tasker when he was felled by a sniper's bullet during a firefight and died.
"I truly believe when Theo went back to the kennel, that that would have a big, big impact because Liam wasn't there to comfort him," Tasker's father, Ian Tasker, told ITV news. Tasker's mother, Jane Duffy, said: "I would like to believe he died of a broken heart to be with Liam."
Lance Corporal Tasker Killed in Firefight and His Bomb Sniffing Dog Died Collapsed and Died
Theo's ashes were due to be presented to the Tasker family today in a private ceremony.
Tasker, from Kirkcaldy, Scotland was the 358th member of the British military to have died in Afghanistan since operations began in 2001.
He served in the Royal Army Veterinary Corps and had been deployed last September after having trained as an arms and explosives search-dog handler. He was a mechanic when he first joined the Army, according to a Ministry of Defense statement, but his passion for dogs led to his transfer to the Veterinary Corps in 2007.
Lance Corporal Natasha Mooney from the Veterinary Corps called Tasker "a larger than life character" and said, "Theo truly was man's best friend and they rest in peace together."
Pamela Reid, vice-president of the ASPCA's Animal Behavior Center, said Tasker and Theo had clearly developed a powerful bond.
"The stress in being separated from the handler could be a very serious component in what happened," she said. "It speaks to the intense relationship we can have with animals."
Theo is the sixth British military dog killed in action in Iraq and Afghanistan since 2001.