Service Before Self: Incirlik Airmen celebrate MWD Yoda on retirement from active duty

  • Published
  • By Master Sgt. Jonathan Lovelady
  • 39th Air Base Wing Public Affairs

Airmen from the 39th Security Forces Squadron celebrated Military Working Dog Yoda during his retirement ceremony after seven years of active duty service at Incirlik Air Base, Turkey, April 1, 2022.

Senior leaders and wingmen from across the 39th Air Base Wing attended the event to wish MWD Yoda farewell and thank him for his honorable service.

“I have a very unique perspective of Yoda,” Lt. Col. Alexander Liggett, 39th SFS commander, said. “He got to hang out at my house and I learned that Yoda is the epitome of ‘service before self.’”

Liggett, who presided over the retirement ceremony, explained how MWD Yoda woke him up around 4 a.m. one morning after hearing something knock over a trash can outside of his house. Despite the time and Liggett’s protest, MWD Yoda proceeded to get him out of bed by barking, hitting Liggett with his paw and finally by running his nose into Liggett’s face until he arose from bed. After confirming there was no danger near the trash cans, MWD Yoda led Liggett on a perimeter sweep along the fence line near his house.

“It took me being out there to realize what he was doing,” Liggett recalled. “Yoda knew what his job was, and he knew that something might be wrong and that he might be needed. Instead of turning away from the problem, he saw the problem and said ‘I’m on it.’ When he took that first little step and saw that nothing was wrong, he didn’t shrug, he went deeper. He went to where he knew the friction was going to be. He did what we in Security Forces call ‘moving to contact.’ I realized there are people like that all across this base, who see problems and fix them. Yoda, thank you for teaching me that lesson.”

Despite preparing for retirement, MWD Yoda is still adjusting to post-military life and learning to break the routine to which he has been tied for the last seven years.

“It’s kind of funny watching him because he doesn’t like to sit still,” said Tech. Sgt. Michael Smith, former 39th SFS kennel master. “He’ll lay down for like 10 minutes, then all of a sudden he’s up trying to do something. He’s highly driven.”

Smith served with MWD Yoda during his previous assignment at Incirlik AB as a MWD handler and during his most recent tour there as the kennel master. He described MWD Yoda’s attributes as a professional, as well as some of his personality traits. 

“He’s got one of the strongest bites I’ve ever felt,” Smith said. “I’ve been doing this for eight years and I’ve felt a lot of dog bites, and his is in the top three. He’s [also] a goofball, you have to put locks on the trash cans because he knows how to open trash can lids. He knows how to open the fridge, we caught him just the other day in [our] fridge. You can’t take your eyes off him for more than three minutes because he’ll be in something.”

Both Smith and Liggett said MWD Yoda can be a handful because of his curiosity and personality, but noted that his military service has been excellent throughout his career.

“He’s been a solid dog,” Smith observed. “Drug dogs have to maintain a 90 percent [detection rate] for accuracy. Yoda’s exceeded that to 97 percent for all seven years! We train really hard and make the training really tough, and you pretty much can’t trick him. 97 percent for a drug dog is fantastic! From day one, he’s had such a high drive and [he’s] super obedient to the handler.”

Smith went on to describe the close relationships between MWDs and their handlers and described why he enjoys working with K-9s. 

“They’re not a pet, they’re your partner,” he explained. “They have your back and you have their back. These dogs didn’t volunteer for service. They’re picked up from a vendor one day and thrown into service and they do the job.

“Once you get a bond with a dog, that’s just one of the best things in the world,” Smith added. “You can talk to the dog and he’s not going to judge you. Anyone who asks why I like K-9s, it’s because I get to go to work with my best friend every day. Teaching a dog something and then watching them grow is one of the greatest feelings.”

This relationship dynamic and close bond can make things difficult for MWD kennel masters, according to Smith. They often have often have to view situations as both a partner and a friend. Despite his playful nature and military accomplishments, the rigors of service and training have taken a physical toll on MWD Yoda. His 3,025 training hours and 350 hours of random antiterrorism measures and law enforcement operations led to a recent surgical operation to repair a medical issue. These same physical effects ultimately motivated Smith to recommend retirement for MWD Yoda.

“The dogs let you know when they’re ready,” Smith explained of his recommendation for retirement. “Medical plays a factor, he wants to work even though his body clearly isn’t letting him.”

Smith said there are mixed feelings when military working dogs retire. In the end, what matters is what is best for the K-9.

“Obviously you’re happy for them because they made it out alive,” Smith said. “That’s an issue with a lot of military working dogs, they’ll work themselves to death. They won’t tell you they’re hurt until it’s too late. On the other hand, you’re sad because you’re losing the dog. You go to the kennels every day and you have an empty kennel. Yoda’s the singer of the kennel, it’ll be dead quiet here and Yoda will start singing, so we’ll miss that. He gets all the other dogs to howl with him too.”

While he’s sad to lose his friend, Smith is happy that MWD Yoda is going to a good home after retiring. He’ll be living in Germany with a U.S. Army veterinarian who previously served at Incirlik AB. Smith said that overall, he believes MWD Yoda is happy and recognizes the gravity of his retirement.

“I think so,” Smith opined on whether MWD Yoda is proud of his military career. “Dogs are pack animals so they like being around a pack. They consider you family once they get a good bond with you. It’s kind of crazy to say, but I’ve retired plenty of dogs and as soon as we do the ceremony, they know they’re retired. Their whole life, since they were a puppy, has been work, work, work. Going home to a couch is kind of a culture shock, so we give them plans on how to keep the dogs active.”

Before officially saying “good bye,” Liggett offered a few final words to MWD Yoda on behalf of Incirlik AB and the entire U.S. military.

“Yoda, thank you for your service to our country,” he said. “You were drafted, you did a seven-year short tour at Incirlik – which is the equivalent of 49 dog years – and you did them well. You were definitely a character and I appreciated getting to know you. May the food be just a little too close to the edge of the counter, may the couches be soft, may the treats be plentiful and may the squirrels be just a step too slow.”