Loyal, compassionate, hero, attentive, courageous, intelligent, personable, brave, dedicated, resilient.
Matthew Bessler ticked off the 11 words as he eulogized his dead service dog and fellow veteran, Mike, to a Veterans Day crowd of more than 70 at Northwest College. Later there was a military funeral service at Crown Hill Cemetery.
Ball was Mike’s favorite activity and Episcopalian Rev. Megan Nickles described the “church of ball” she speculated Mike belonged to.
“The church of ball says we must have the will simply to be,” Nickles said, adding that it requires others to serve each other. “The church of ball says, 'I know you.'”
Nickles also described how Bessler and Mike found healing through their shared experiences, including post-traumatic stress disorder. Mike was an explosives-detecting dog and Bessler was his handler from the time Mike was a puppy. The two served two tours in Iraq together and Bessler earned two Bronze Stars.
Nate Davis attended the services Wednesday, with a 10-year old Belgian Malinois, the same breed as Mike. Davis, from Red Lodge, is a former Army Ranger and is taking care of the dog, named Gizmo, while his owner works as a contractor in Afghanistan. Gizmo also served in the military.
“He was a service dog. Now he just fetches,” Davis said of Gizmo, who sleeps near his children. Davis heard of Bessler and Mike’s story on Facebook and reached out to Bessler.
“I knew what he was going through pretty quickly,” Davis said.
Davis said he believes military dogs do not get the recognition they deserve.
“Their sole purpose is to save lives,” Davis said. "I don’t think the average American knows what they do.”
Sonny Hilliard, a member of the Vietnam Veterans Motorcycle Club, traveled from Cody to attend the funeral.
“I think a lot of my brothers are alive because of the dogs. And it’s very unfortunate he met such a sad ending.” Hilliard said. “Many of them suffer as much, if not more trauma than us.”
Jim McEvoy, who attended the memorial with his wife, Karen, said that he lives near Bessler, has never met him, but had encountered his dogs before while walking his dogs with his wife.
“I feel for Mr. Bessler. It’s just a terrible tragedy.” McEvoy said. “I just wish there was a different outcome. We’re just here to pay our respects to a hero.”
At the cemetery American flags whipped in the wind as Bessler, in formal military uniform, clutched Mike’s leash, fighting tears.
Tom Bibbey, the bugler who played taps, has been playing for 40 years but has only been doing military funerals for about 15 years. Bibbey has never played at a canine military funeral before but he was glad to lend his music.
“I’m glad we’re doing this and honoring the dog's service,” Bibbey said.
As the gunshots went off saluting Mike, Gizmo barked from the crowd, before going quiet. Later, as Bessler was handed a tightly folded American flag, Gizmo broke the silence, barking again. The ceremony concluded and Bessler stepped forward, bending over to touch Mike’s gravestone.
Little was said publicly Wednesday of Mike’s death, a shooting by a bicyclist who said Mike attacked him in October, a claim that a Park County Sheriff’s office investigation upheld.
Jess Campbell, a friend of Bessler’s, helped organize the memorial that included a PowerPoint with pictures of Bessler and Mike, as well as videos of the two, including one of Bessler and Mike playing ball.
Campbell said that she doesn’t think the Powell community is one to dwell on the incident, adding that she couldn’t even pick Jeffery Brandt, the man who killed Mike, out of a crowd.
Bessler said he is still upset with the findings of the sheriff’s office and has even reached out to Inside Edition, who were among the multiple media outlets in attendance Wednesday, but did not air his grievances publicly at the services.
At a reception at the Eagles Club afterward, Bessler arrived in fatigues, wearing Mike’s leash looped over his arms, almost like suspenders.
“It’s an amazing feeling to help put closure to a retired soldier that did so much,” Bessler said.“I would hope that it would bring recognition, bring everybody up so to speed with the knowledge that these dogs aren’t just dogs. He’s an actual service member as well.”
Bessler said there are a few memories of Mike that he keeps coming back to. “Him sleeping,” Bessler said. “When we were sleeping and sharing a cot, I think about that. He’d always stretch out and push me off the cot.”
The other memory?