A group of six German shepherds gave a final salute today in honor of a fellow canine who served three tours of duty as a military working dog for the U.S. Marine Corps and died on July 27 at age 10 after a weeks’ long battle with bone cancer.
The German shepherds, which are part of the K-9 Salute Team, were trained to kneel and howl on command in honor of Cena, a black lab who was euthanized in July and whose remains were interred today at the Michigan War Dog Memorial in Lyon Township.
The memorial site, which hosted the public service and private interment, has about 10 military dogs buried beside 2,150 pets interred at the historic pet cemetery, according to memorial president and director Phil Weitlauf.
Cena, a bomb-sniffing dog, belonged to Marine Corps Lance Cpl. Jeffrey DeYoung, 27, of Muskegon, who said he adopted the black lab in June 2014 after Cena underwent a year of rehabilitation therapy. DeYoung said that he and Cena served together on a seven-month tour of duty in Afghanistan that began in October 2009.
Cena also served with Jon North, a Marine sergeant from Osage, Iowa, who was present at the ceremony, and one other soldier who was not able to be there.
DeYoung said in a eulogy at the memorial service that Cena endured various injuries on his tours of duty, and that he and Cena encountered three improvised explosive devices together. Cena was officially an IED detection dog with the Marine Corps. The dogs walk ahead of patrols and pick up the scent of the explosives in the area and sit down near the explosive before a bomb-disarming unit comes, Weitlauf said.
“In every aspect of Cena, he has shed blood, pain, sweat and tears for this country,” DeYoung said.
North, 28, who served one year with Cena in Afghanistan from 2010 to 2011 didn’t speak at the service, but told the Free Press that Cena was known for being “a slow, old man” and that he was “just kind of a goofy old dog.”
“By the end of your time together, he’s more like a brother, more like a kid. It’s hard to let him go,” North said.
Together, DeYoung and North carried an urn containing Cena’s ashes in a funeral procession that included bagpipers and a military color guard.
Weitlauf said that three separate Jeep convoys — including one from Muskegon with DeYoung escorting Cena’s remains — traversed different parts of the state to make it to the service, linking up at different locations including Kalamazoo, Battle Creek and New Hudson. He said that about 80 Jeeps participated in the convoys, and that about 600 people attended the funeral service — nearly double the 350 attendees the services normally get.
DeYoung, who is a professional public speaker, said that after adopting Cena in 2014, their job wasn’t yet over. They spent the next several years journeying across the country together to places such as President Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago home and the U.S. Congress, where DeYoung discussed the need to bring home all war dogs prior to retirement “so that what happened in Vietnam with the euthanasia will never happen again.”
At the end of that war, troops were ordered to leave their dogs in Vietnam out of fear of a logistical nightmare and concerns of disease being brought back, Weitlauf said. They had the option to give the dogs over to the South Vietnamese army or to euthanize them, he said. Over 4,000 were left behind, and only 204 made it back home, Weitlauf said.
Tom Strempka, 69, of Bloomfield Hills was deployed to Vietnam in 1971 at the age of 23, where he served a six-month tour of duty and suffered injuries. He said the funeral gave him closure.
Strempka said that war dogs in Vietnam once saved his platoon of 30 men from an ambush.
“I’m out here for every funeral because it’s long overdue for everyone to recognize the importance of dogs as being part of the unit and not a piece of equipment, the way the government treated them in Vietnam,” Strempka said. “And it’s a glorious day, and I guess that it gives me a little more peace of mind.”
For DeYoung, laying Cena to rest at what he described as the “Arlington of dogs” also provided some closure.
“Cena’s journey in my life is done. Our work is not, so I will continue doing so in his honor,” DeYoung said to reporters before the ceremony.
Contact Hasan Dudar at firstname.lastname@example.org. Free Press reporter Robert Allen contributed to this report.