Mike, a 10-year-old Belgian Malinois, earned two Bronze Stars for his work as a bomb-sniffing dog during two tours of duty in Iraq with his partner, Army Ranger Matthew Bessler. Because of his successful detection of thousands of pounds of explosives, saving the lives of hundreds of people, Mike was promoted to the rank of major.
When they both retired, Bessler adopted Mike, and his partner became his service dog at their home in Powell, Wyo.
“I raised him and trained him as a puppy,” Bessler told the Billings Gazette. “The ability he has to sense some of the issues that I have with seizures, with my PTSD, my TBI (traumatic brain injury) and severe anxiety disorders, how he can calm me down just by him being in my presence. He can help take the focus and help change the focus of what’s going on with me and help me calm down or relax me.”
Mike, who also suffered from PTSD, was the only known combat dog who transformed into a service dog, Bessler said.
“Michael is a brother,” he told the Washington Post in July. “He needs me just as much as I need him.”
Bessler said that when his depression led to thoughts of suicide, Mike would climb into his lap so he couldn’t move. Or he’d drop one of his beloved tennis balls in Bessler’s lap and refuse to budge until his dog dad threw it.
“When you can escape yourself for a minute, and stop being selfish and think about the things you have, in my world, it’s that dog,” Bessler told the Washington Post.
While Bessler was away on a hunting trip Oct. 10, an unidentified 59-year-old man riding a bicycle on Bessler’s street told police he was “attacked by a German shepherd-looking dog,” the Powell Tribune reports. The alleged attacker was Mike.
The man, who had no injuries, claimed he got off his bike and used it as a shield, but Mike kept trying to bite him. So he pulled out a revolver he happened to have with him and shot Mike with what he said was birdshot. The “attacking” dog was 5 to 10 feet away from him at the time he was shot — in the rear end.
Afterward, the man said Mike ran away. He didn’t think he had killed him.
There were no eyewitnesses to the shooting. A neighbor told Bessler she hadn’t heard any barking at the time. She found Mike, limping, on Bessler’s property.
“If Mike were to go toward somebody or feel there was a threat, he would start barking first,” Bessler told the Billings Gazette. “If the guy was actually fending the dogs off with a bicycle, (Mike) would have really been barking, and there was no barking. All there was was just a shot.”
Park County Sheriff’s Office spokesman Lance Mathess told the Powell Tribune the bicyclist said he was “genuinely in fear of his life and well-being, and the dog was ‘definitely in full attack mode and not backing down at all.’” (How strange, then, that Mike was shot at least 5 feet away from him, and in the rear.)
The bicyclist changed his initial story, in which he claimed he was attacked by a pack of dogs, including a puppy and Yorkshire Terrier. He later said only Mike had been threatening him.
Bessler thinks the fact that Mike was shot in the rear — two pellet marks went into his heart, killing him — is “inconsistent with a dog that’s attacking somebody,” he told the Powell Tribune.
“He would never attack someone,” he said. “The only time he ever protected property was when somebody stepped on to my property and looked into the back of my truck.” He said Mike would rarely get out on the street.
“He was very laid back. He would lean up against people, he liked being petted, he played ball,” Bessler told the Billings Gazette. “He was happy. He was a happy-go-lucky dog.”
From years of chewing on rocks due to anxiety, Mike’s teeth had been worn down to non-threatening nubs.
“I believe the gentleman just shot the dog on my property,” Bessler told the Powell Tribune. “I don’t buy his story.”
The bicyclist is not facing any charges, Park County Sheriff Scott Steward told the Powell Tribune. The sheriff didn’t seem to think there was anything disturbing or illegal about the man having a revolver.
“A lot of people, when they walk or ride bikes around here, they’ve got pepper spray, a gun or a stick,” Steward said. “And that’s because dogs come out and chase bikes (and) people.”
But Bessler, who grew up in Powell, said he was “flabbergasted” over why someone would be carrying the type of weapon the bicyclist was carrying.
“I think that a person that mounts a Judge, a .410 shot, onto their handlebars, has pretty premeditated intentions that they want to shoot a dog,” he told the Billings Gazette. “If he’s passed my house multiple times and he needs to mount a firearm to the handles of his bicycle, he doesn’t have intentions of just shooting snakes.”
The Park County Sheriff’s Office is reportedly following up on a few inconsistencies in the bicyclist’s story.
Bessler told the Billings Gazette he would like “to take a civil avenue to go after him — the gentleman that shot him — because Mike was a retired military officer. I mean, it’s not just a wrongful use of force.”
He said that even if the bicyclist’s claims are true, “I’m disgusted with the fact that the guy hasn’t even shown his face to say, ‘I’m sorry this happened.’”
After a necropsy is completed to determine how Mike died, Bessler hopes his hero dog can be given a funeral with military honors.
The “RIP Major Mike” GoFundMe campaign has been launched to raise expenses for a military funeral for Mike. As of this morning, about $4,200 of the $6,000 goal has been raised. Any extra donations will be given to a program that supports war veterans.