Soldier drapes American flag over former military dog partner's body after he is put down
"Through better or worse."
That was the motto of a U.S. Air Force soldier when he held his beloved German shepherd that served alongside him until the very end.
Bodza, an 11-year-old military working dog, was put down last week due to health complications after a lifetime of serving his country.
"I held him in my arms the entire time," the dog's former handler Kyle Smith, who adopted Bodza after the canine's retirement, said. "I've never cried that much my entire life."
Smith, who was paired with Bodza in 2012 during a deployment in Kyrgyzstan, told InsideEdition.com he didn't find out he would put his dog down until earlier the same afternoon.
"It was the saddest thing — he was dragging himself along the tile floor because it was hard to maneuver. Instead of putting him on the table, I had a minute with him on the floor," Smith explained. "I just kept holding him, rubbing and kissing his head, telling him, 'I'm going to miss you.'"
Although he tried to hide his heartbreak from his superiors, he explained they arrived at the veterinarian's office the moment they found out Bodza was being euthanized. Afterwards, they had a request.
"My boss immediately said, 'Where's your American flag? You should have one in your building. Find it for me now.'" Smith said.
They then draped the flag over Bodza's body, in recognition for his service to the country.
"The worst thing you can do is not to recognize these dogs for what they are," Smith said. "For these guys to do this for a dog they've never even met... he got a good sendoff that day."
Smith explained they developed a special bond right away when he became Bodza's handler.
"He was one of those gentle giants," Smith explained. "He was trained to bite, but I swear he only did it to make people happy. He had no interest in the world of hurting anyone."
He said he quickly learned that Bodza often chased around his own shadow, and licked windows when he got excited. Bodza also enjoyed long car rides.
"My favorite thing about him was he didn't care what you were doing, he just wanted to be there doing it with you," he said. "Pretty much my whole career with him was walking around something, or walking to somewhere."
Smith was eventually paired with a new dog as a part of a different assignment, but in 2014, when Bodza retired from service, his boss surprised him with his adoption papers, knowing that Smith intended to take the German shepherd home when it came time.
"My boss said, 'Hey, go check your Jeep,'" Smith recalled. "They went out and put a bowl, a brand new leash and two collars, and they put [Bodza] at the back of my Jeep. I got to take him home the same day he retired."
Smith later became an instructor for military working dogs in El Paso, Texas, and said he started noticing Bodza's ailing health on their drive down from Virginia last October.
"It was a rough ride, but I noticed he couldn't jump into the vehicle, I had to pick him up," he explained.
He said he assumed it was a minor case of hip dysplasia, and monitored his pup for the following months, until it became glaringly obvious Bodza was in pain.
Smith explained his 11-year-old dog was having trouble getting around, and would often slip on smooth surfaces. He also noticed his front legs weakened significantly.
The veterinarian later diagnosed Bodza with degenerative myelopathy, an incurable disease that affected his spinal cord, and Smith was later forced to make the difficult decision to euthanize Bodza.
"All of us have that dog that is so special to us," Smith said. "I got married with this dog, I got divorced with this dog. I have a son on the way, and the most heartbreaking part is I really wish he was younger, so my son would be able to play with him. He was the nicest dog in the world."
To find out more about adopting military working dogs after service, visit www.VetsAdoptPets.org.