After six long years, a U.S. Army veteran is feeling a bit more whole now that he's finally been reunited permanently with his four-legged military pal from Afghanistan.
On Saturday, former handler and U.S. Army veteran Joe Steenbeke returned home to Culver, Indiana, with Tess, an 11-year-old Belgian Malinois. He and his wife, Stephanie Steenbeke, had spent years trying to adopt the dog. Now, the two military veterans were together as they'd been in Afghanistan.
"There's a little piece of me that I didn't really ever think that I'd get back," Joe Steenbeke said. "But, it's something that my wife fought really hard for."
Joe Steenbeke met Tess in Afghanistan, where he served nearly a year as a tactical explosives dog handler. Tess, tasked with sniffing out bombs, worked by his side day in and day out. When his deployment ended in February 2013, he left Afghanistan and Tess remained.
The dog was later stationed with the Connecticut National Guard, which has a military working dog program.
After hearing about Tess from her husband, Stephanie Steenbeke began the years-long process to get the two veterans reunited.
"She just came right to him. ... Honestly it's like she's always been with us," Stephanie Steenbeke told the South Bend Tribune recently.
Joe Steenbeke said he was sleeping better just having Tess in the house.
"It feels like it's been a lifetime but it also feels like it was just yesterday that I said goodbye to her," he said.
The Steenbekes said Tess was settling in well in her new, permanent home. The family also thanked Mission K9 Rescue for helping to cover the expenses for Tess' trip to Indiana.
"It's still doesn't feel real," Stephanie Steebeke said. "I really, just can't believe that she's still here."