On July 26, 2017, Corporal Jeff DeYoung carried his best friend, Cena – a 10-year-old black Labrador Retriever and Retired Combat Marine — past the solemn crowd, which had gathered quietly beneath a grey, cloudy sky in Muskegon, Michigan. Cena was lame with an aggressive and painful form of terminal bone cancer. They boarded the USS LST 393 — a decommissioned Navy ship — which now serves as a Veterans Museum. Aboard the ship, a veterinarian was waiting to end Cena’s pain.
Three rounds of rifle fire cracked through the air. Then silence.
In the distance, a lone bugler breathed the sacred notes to “Taps.”
“I want to run away and not face what I must do,” DeYoung had written on his Facebook Page the day before. “But he needs me to be strong and set him free. Because of him I got to have a family. Because of him I was able to live. May God forgive me for what I do tomorrow. And may the Lord greet you with open arms and a nice ear scratch.”
DeYoung and Cena — randomly paired to protect Marines from the dangers of improvised explosive devices (IEDs) — served together in Afghanistan between 2009 and 2010. Cena would work 50 yards ahead of DeYoung to hunt for the scent of the IEDs.
Curiously though, rather than lie down next to a suspected explosive when he found the scent — as he was trained to do — Cena would race off in the opposite direction. For this, DeYoung bestowed upon his faithful canine companion the endearing nickname, Chicken.
Because of their intense environment, DeYoung and Cena developed an inseparable bond. When DeYoung lost seven friends over the course of three weeks, it was Cena who was there to comfort him.
“My main goal was to protect him,” DeYoung said. “I remember we would get into firefights and having to cover myself on top of him so he wouldn’t get harm. It was all about him.”
In 2010, the pair parted ways in the war zone without having an opportunity to say goodbye. It’s a tactic used by the military to make the separation between a handler and their service dog easier. Still, the separation hit DeYoung hard.
As the years passed, DeYoung got married and had two children. But he never forgot about Cena. In 2014, after serving six years in the military, Cena was retired from service. DeYoung found out that his former war buddy was available for adoption.
Enter Mission K9 Rescue, a non-profit organization that works with the military and the American Humane Association, to reunite retired service military dogs with their former handlers. For DeYoung and Cena, it had been nearly four years.
Since the military does not fund transportation for the service dogs, Mission K9 Rescue works with the American Humane Association to provide the necessary transportation to reunite the dog with his new family.
On June 5, 2014, DeYoung made the trip to Raleigh Durham International Airport for a long-awaited and very emotional reunion with his “brother,” Cena.
During the three difficult years that followed — with DeYoung going through a divorce and struggling to find a job — his loyal Cena was the only one who stayed by his side.
Then one day, DeYoung noticed that Cena was having trouble walking. He was favoring his front leg. Cena was later diagnosed with an aggressive and very painful form of bone cancer.
In mid-July of 2017, as Cena’s condition worsened, a fellow Marine named Jacobie Baumann launched an online fundraiser hoping to help pay for a headstone and statue for Cena. More than 1,100 people quickly donated nearly $45,000. A “Bucket List” of things DeYoung wanted to do for his “brother” included a final ride in an open jeep.
Not only did Cena and DeYoung have a last ride together, they were joined by multiple motorcycle and Jeep convoys. One Jeep convoy came nearly 80 miles from Plainwell, Michigan. Another came over 90 miles from Kalamazoo. A convoy of Patriot Guard Riders gathered from all over the state to stand in a silent flag line in honor of Cena’s service to his country and his fellow Marines. Hundreds attended the ceremony.
At the send-off ceremony — organized by the U.S. Marine Corps League — Cena was dressed in a custom-made decorated blue Marine vest. He was in so much pain, he was heavily sedated, but DeYoung said he knew Cena could feel the love.
“My whole adult life I’ve had Cena,” DeYoung said. “When I was 19 overseas learning how to be responsible, I had Cena. And now I’m 27 and I’m having to say goodbye to one of the biggest pieces of my life.”
“Lord, it is with heavy hearts that we are sending another Marine to you today,” said chaplain Wesley Spyke as he addressed the crowd in prayer.
With full military honors, in a tear-filled ceremony held at the Michigan War Dog Memorial in South Lyon, Michigan, Cena was laid to rest on August 26, 2017.
In memory of Cena, a K-9 hero the ceremony was attended by the U.S. Marine Corps League, Michigan State Police, Muskegon County Sheriff’s Office, Muskegon City Police, Muskegon Fire Department and officers from several other departments, including a canine officer named Rex.
Tom Strempka of Bloomfield Hills – a 69-year-old Vietnam Veteran who served a six-month tour of duty and suffered injuries — said the funeral gave him closure, the Detroit Free Press reported.
Strempka said war dogs 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.”
Jon North, a Marine sergeant from Osage, Iowa, who also served with Cena, was also present at the ceremony. “By the end of your time together, he’s more like a brother, more like a kid,” The Detroit Free Press quoted North saying. “It’s hard to let him go.”
In the funeral procession that included bagpipers and a military color guard, DeYoung and North carried the urn containing Cena’s ashes, together.
According to Michigan War Dog Memorial President and Director Phil Weitlauf, three separate Jeep convoys — including the one from Muskegon with DeYoung escorting Cena’s remains — traversed different parts of the state as they made their way to the service. Weitlauf said about 80 Jeeps participated in the convoys — linking up at different locations including Kalamazoo, Battle Creek and New Hudson — and that about 600 people attended the funeral service. That’s nearly double the 350 attendees that normally attend these services, all in memory of Cena, a K-9 hero.
There was the folding of the flag, and other tributes.
A bugler again exhaled the lonely notes of Taps. Bagpipes wept Amazing Grace, followed by the Marine’s Hymn.
In the painful silence that followed, six German Shepherds — part of the K-9 Salute Team – sat and howled in unison in one final salute to Cena.
“Goodnight my friend, goodbye my brother,” read DeYoungs farewell to his friend on Facebook. “May you rest your head tonight knowing how loved you are and how dearly you will be missed.”
If you are looking for a way to say thank you to all those who have sacrificed everything protecting our freedom — both human and canine – please check out these organizations. In memory of Cena, a K-9 hero, please give generously.