Seven years ago, Marine Nick Montez was unexpectedly ripped away from his bomb-sniffing dog after returning from deployment in Afghanistan.
Now, he's preparing for a heartfelt reunion following years of countless attempts to adopt the animal.
Mally, a 9-year-old yellow Labrador retriever, has completed her service in the military. Montez, who lives in Lewiston, received a phone call Monday stating Mally would be ready for adoption in the next week or two.
"I think it was definitely one of the best moments of my life," Montez said of the phone call. "It was indescribable."
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The journey has not been an easy one.
After completing the Marine Corps' dog-handler program in the spring of 2011, Montez and Mally were deployed to Garmsir, Afghanistan, where they spent more than seven months on dismount patrols searching for bombs.
"Our job was to find (improvised explosive devices) in the ground and save lives of fellow Marines and civilians," Montez said.
The dog was a constant companion. She even slept next to Montez during the bitter-cold nights of winter in southern Afghanistan.
In 2012, the duo returned to a Marine Corps Air Station in Cherry Point, N.C. The dog handlers thought they'd have a few more days before they had to part ways with their furry companions, but plans changed.
"We got off the plane and we were letting our dogs out and a truck trailer came up with a bunch of kennels on the back. We were told to load our dogs up, so I put Mally in her kennel and haven't seen her since," Montez said. "It was definitely one of the toughest experiences I've had."
Shortly afterward, Montez filled out an adoption application with the Department of Defense. At the time, the dog-handling company he had worked with had been absorbed by a larger outfit. Mally was sent to Lackland Air Force Base in Texas to continue her service, while Montez was later discharged from the Marine Corps on July 12, 2013, after four years of service. Montez couldn't get in touch with anyone in the program after the company switched ownership.
That's when his friend, Derek Brown, a member of the U.S. Air Force, stepped in. Brown was stationed at the same base as the dog and put Montez in contact with someone on base. The line of communication remained open for several years. Montez would touch base on Mally's adoption status every six months to one year.
Then the other side went silent.
"They stopped replying to me," Montez said. "They didn't call me back. They stopped emailing me back and wouldn't answer my calls. There was no communication whatsoever."
His friend's dad, Donn Durgan, decided to take action. He reached out to Sen. Mike Crapo's office.
"After his office sent the letter, less than 12 hours later, I got a full-blown apology from a colonel apologizing to me by name and ensuring me it wouldn't happen again," Montez said.
That was almost three years ago. Since then, the now 27-year-old Lewiston resident started working as an apprentice electrician at Clearwater Paper.
The call that Mally's adoption had been approved took Montez by surprise.
"My stomach dropped," he said.
After her years of hard work, Montez plans to vastly change Mally's life. She'll become a companion to him and his 3-year-old daughter.
"She's absolutely going to be a family dog," he said. "Mally, she's been working her whole life. Before she was a bomb dog, she was a bird dog when she was a puppy. All she's ever known is work. Instead of her being treated as a tool, I want her to be treated like a pet or family member."
Montez looks forward to taking her camping and hiking. He said he'll even probably let her sleep on the bed.
As excited as he is for his impending trip to Texas to pick her up, he's also nervous.
"When they called me and told me it is my time to adopt her, I also had this huge rush of fear because I know I remember her, but it's been seven years since she's seen me, and I don't know how that reunion is going to go," Montez said. "I'm really nervous and really hopeful."
Mary Lou Riddle, the mom of Montez's good friend, Patrick, has set up a post office box to solicit donations for his travel expenses. Montez likely will fly to Texas and rent a car to bring Mally back to Idaho.
"He's dreamt about this for forever, for seven years," Riddle said. "Hopefully people will be generous. If a lot of people send a little bit, it makes it that much easier for him."
Tomtas may be contacted at email@example.com or at (208) 848-2294.