Army Staff Sgt. Tom Hansen and Taylor, his 10-year-old bomb-sniffing dog, had a simple, three-part arrangement during special forces missions in Afghanistan:
1. Taylor protected Hansen and the unit from improved explosive traps laid by Taliban insurgents.
2. When shooting started, Hansen, before returning fire, commanded the golden Lab to cover.
3. Taylor got a tennis ball when the mission was done.
Hansen, who was deployed to Afghanistan twice and once to Iraq, received several concussions after explosives knocked him off of his feet. He said “Tay-Tay” kept him and rest of the 11-soldier special forces unit out of greater harm on missions in treacherous Afghan villages and mountains.
“I’m very lucky I came back with all my limbs,” he said. “I thank her for it. She’s who I have. It’s because of her I came back alive. I wouldn’t have asked for anybody else.”
I had to prove to them that I wasn’t going to let them down. After we found our first IUD for them, they took me in. I was part of the team after that.
Staff Sgt. Tom Hansen
Hansen said goodbye to his partner two years ago when he left active duty. He had been promised that he’d get to own her after her retirement — a military dog’s first handler gets first dibs — but another handler needed a a capable dog, and Taylor remained on duty.
Hansen said he was upset by the decision, making for an emotional goodbye.
“When they save your life that many times, they become part of your family,” Hansen said. “It’s so hard to let them go. That’s the hardest part of being a dog handler.”
The pair were reunited June 4, thanks to Molli Oliver, a flight attendant for United Airlines who volunteered to take Taylor from Missouri to her new Boise home.
Taylor is the fourth military dog Oliver has flown with to reunite with their handlers. She is in the process of starting a nonprofit, Molly Uniting Military Service Dogs, or MUM’s Dogs, to continue her mission. Hansen said he and his fiancee, Meridian native and Army Staff Sgt. Emily Donner, a field medic, are indebted to Oliver for the delivery that side-stepped what was going to be an expensive trip to retrieve her.
He accepted an invitation to serve on the board of Oliver’s nonprofit.
“Molli is like family now to us,” Hansen said. “What she did for me and Taylor was amazing. I couldn’t thank her enough for reuniting us.”
With Hansen as her handler, Taylor was trained to find explosives, ammunition, weapons, vehicles — about anything except for people, Hansen said. She once found an explosive within a step of Hansen (watch the video above for the story). Another time, she sniffed out a compound that wasn’t a target of interest until she started going nuts at the compound wall.
“We looked in, and you could see it all drying out — thousands of pounds of homemade explosives,” Hansen said. “We ended up dropping a bomb on that to blow it up.”
Toward the end of our deployment, she started shutting down. She wouldn’t work if I was holding a weapon. She started putting two and two together. It definitely got rough on her. Dogs can get PTSD just as quick as a human can.
Staff Sgt. Tom Hansen
Hansen, a Florida native, moved to Boise to be with Donner. Their deployments in Afghanistan overlapped, but the pair didn’t date until they were stateside.
Donner said she avoided dating military men. When she was in Georgia, she began dating Hansen in part because he was on a base 10 hours away in Missouri. She’d taken grief from lower-ranking male soldiers in her unit. She was skeptical.
She said she fell for Hansen in part because he’d taken in Harley, a boxer that had been shot in the leg, suffered a crushed throat and abandoned. Harley now lives with the family in Boise.
“If you love animals that much, you have to be a good person,” she said.
Want to meet Hansen and Taylor? The pair will be honored Saturday, June 25, at the Meridian Lions PRCA Rodeo at the Meridian Rodeo Grounds at 6054 W. Cherry Lane.