Soldier Reunites with her Rescue Dog in Las Cruces

By Matlin Smith
Reposted from Las Cruces Sun-News

She was the only one not barking in the animal shelter. She was quiet, but friendly. The happy-go-lucky demeanor of Tango, a 3-year-old terrier mix, won the hearts of newlywed couple Ben and Gretchen Zilka and she was adopted from a Las Cruces animal shelter on Christmas Eve last year, after the couple decided to adopt a dog while on their honeymoon.

“She’s very active. She loves to go outside and she likes to walk. She is so social and full of energy,” Gretchen Zilka said of their furry family member. “There are so many dogs that need to be adopted sitting in the pound, so it was a win-win both ways. It worked out so well.” Originally from Rochester, Minn., the Zilkas met when they were both in school in St. Cloud, Minn.

U.S. Army Lt. Gretchen Zilka, left, reunites with her rescue dog Tango, a 3-year-old terrier mix, after recently returning from nine months of deployment in Afghanistan. Through national nonprofit organization Dogs on Deployment, Tango was placed in a foster home with Amanda Askin, of Las Cruces, instead of returning to an animal shelter while Zilka was overseas. (Steve MacIntyre/ For My Las Cruces)

They were both commissioned in the U.S. Army in May 2012 and are currently stationed at Fort Bliss in El Paso. “In the United States, we are given different opportunities and chances and freedoms, so in a sense, we both felt like we owed something back,” Zilka said. “We’re given all of these opportunities, so the least you can do is give back. This was our way of giving back.”

Zilka recently returned from a 9-month deployment in Afghanistan and after her return, husband Ben was almost immediately deployed to Afghanistan, where he will be until next summer. “It’s hard,” Zilka said of the couple’s first year as a married couple being spent on opposite continents. Between alternating deployments, and full-time work schedules, Tango, who had been with the Zilkas for five month, suddenly had an uncertain future. “We explored every means to get her with someone,” she said. With no family nearby to temporarily keep Tango, Zilka said she searched the Internet for Army programs for pets, and national nonprofit organization Dogs on Deployment popped up during the search.

DoD provides an online network for military service members to search for volunteers in their area who are willing to board their pets during their service commitments, according to the organization’s website. Through the website – which military members and potential foster families register through – Zilka said they were introduced to Amanda Askin, of Las Cruces. Askin, a local advocate for animal welfare, said DoD appeared in her Facebook newsfeed and, after looking into it and reaching a compromise with her husband to add another dog to their three-dog household, Askin registered as a foster home last fall.

“I looked at the purpose and saw that their slogan is ‘For the love of dog and country,’ and it’s just such a shame and tragedy that soldiers who are out defending our country have to surrender their pets and they don’t know what happens to them,” she said. “That would be terrible. They’ve given their life to the military and get orders and you have to go.”

A play date was arranged between Tango and Askin’s dogs, and three weeks later, Tango found a family to take care of her while Gretchen Zilka was overseas and Ben Zilka was working demanding hours and preparing for his deployment. DoD provides pre-made contracts that cover everything from how to handle aggression and other emotions and behaviors in the foster dog to its medical emergencies to prevent lawsuits and other potential problems.

Prior to being deployed, the Zilkas also made arrangements to supplement Tango’s food and boarding for when the Askins would be out of town, along with any other needs the dog would have over the 9-month foster period. “I created a Facebook group for us and the Zilkas so they could see videos and photos and keep up with Tango daily,” Askin said. The Zilkas sent Tango a box of treats and toys every month, and got to watch her enjoy the gift in videos recorded by Askin and her family.

“She spent more time with the Askins than with us, so I was really nervous she wouldn’t know who I was,” Zilka said of seeing Tango after returning from deployment. “But she knew as soon as she saw me. It was a big relief.

“Coming back here, you have to reintegrate, you’ve been gone for so long. You have to get your finances back in order and just adjust to regular life again. Her recognizing me was one easier step.”

While her husband is on deployment, Zilka said she is fostering a Chihuahua through Las Cruces’ ACTion Programs for Animals to provide a companion for Tango, and who might become another permanent member of the Zilka household. “I can’t express the gratitude I have toward Amanda and her family. Deployment can be stressful and what she did for us out of the kindness of her heart, it made deployment so much easier,” Zilka said. “She didn’t have to do that and it was an excellent way for her to give back.”

Askin’s tips for fostering a pet through Dogs on Deployment include:

  • It’s not your dog, it’s a soldier’s dog.
  • Stay in contact with the people you’re fostering for, and continue that connection they have with their dog while they’re far away from home.
  • Really be committed to the animal and its well-being.

“Their dogs are their babies and loved ones. It means a lot to them that they are being taken care of and can still be in their lives,” Askin said. “Gretchen said when she would see the videos of Tango, it felt like she had a piece of home.”

“The solider is counting on you to take good care of them. You have to be committed to absorbing them into your household as if they were yours,” she said.

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