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Rico’s last call: Squadron, base bid farewell to Airman’s best friend

Members of the 436th Security Forces Squadron render a final salute to retired Military Working Dog Rico as his former handler and current owner, retired Tech. Sgt. Jason Spangenberg, carries him to the Veterinary Treatment Facility Jan. 24, 2018, on Dover Air Force Base, Del. Mya Spangenberg accompanied her father as they walked through the cordon. (U.S. Air Force photo by Roland Balik)

Members of the 436th Security Forces Squadron render a final salute to retired Military Working Dog Rico as his former handler and current owner, retired Tech. Sgt. Jason Spangenberg, carries him to the Veterinary Treatment Facility Jan. 24, 2018, on Dover Air Force Base, Del. Mya Spangenberg accompanied her father as they walked through the cordon. (U.S. Air Force photo by Roland Balik)

Mya Spangenberg along with her father, retired Tech. Sgt. Jason Spangenberg; Tech. Sgt. Rachel Weis, 436th Airlift Wing inspector general inspections NCO in charge; and retired Military Working Dog Rico pose for a photo Jan. 24, 2018, at the Veterinary Treatment Facility on Dover Air Force Base, Del. MWD Rico was humanely euthanized shortly after being carried into the facility by Spangenberg, his owner. (U.S. Air Force photo by Roland Balik)

Mya Spangenberg along with her father, retired Tech. Sgt. Jason Spangenberg; Tech. Sgt. Rachel Weis, 436th Airlift Wing inspector general inspections NCO in charge; and retired Military Working Dog Rico pose for a photo Jan. 24, 2018, at the Veterinary Treatment Facility on Dover Air Force Base, Del. MWD Rico was humanely euthanized shortly after being carried into the facility by Spangenberg, his owner. (U.S. Air Force photo by Roland Balik)

Retired Military Working Dog Rico sits between retired Tech. Sgt. Jason Spangenberg and Tech. Sgt. Rachel Weis, 436th Security Forces Squadron, Jan. 24, 2018, at the Veterinary Treatment Facility on Dover Air Force Base, Del. MWD Rico retired from the U.S. Air Force Jan. 15, 2016, after serving more than seven years on active duty. (U.S. Air Force photo by Roland Balik)

Retired Military Working Dog Rico sits between retired Tech. Sgt. Jason Spangenberg and Tech. Sgt. Rachel Weis, 436th Security Forces Squadron, Jan. 24, 2018, at the Veterinary Treatment Facility on Dover Air Force Base, Del. MWD Rico retired from the U.S. Air Force Jan. 15, 2016, after serving more than seven years on active duty. (U.S. Air Force photo by Roland Balik)

Members of the 436th Security Forces Squadron render a final salute to retired Military Working Dog Rico as his former handler, retired Tech. Sgt. Jason Spangenberg, carries him to the Veterinary Treatment Facility Jan. 24, 2018, on Dover Air Force Base, Del. Mya Spangenberg carried a U.S. flag as she accompanied her father. (U.S. Air Force photo by Roland Balik)

Members of the 436th Security Forces Squadron render a final salute to retired Military Working Dog Rico as his former handler, retired Tech. Sgt. Jason Spangenberg, carries him to the Veterinary Treatment Facility Jan. 24, 2018, on Dover Air Force Base, Del. Mya Spangenberg carried a U.S. flag as she accompanied her father. (U.S. Air Force photo by Roland Balik)

Airman 1st Class Nicholas Miller, 736th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron C-17 aerospace maintenance journeyman and Base Honor Guard member, plays Taps as retired Military Working Dog Rico is carried by his owner, retired Tech. Sgt. Jason Spangenberg, to the Veterinary Treatment Facility Jan. 24, 2018, on Dover Air Force Base, Del. MWD Rico retired from the U.S. Air Force Jan. 15, 2016 after serving more than seven years on active duty. (U.S. Air Force photo by Roland Balik)

Airman 1st Class Nicholas Miller, 736th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron C-17 aerospace maintenance journeyman and Base Honor Guard member, plays Taps as retired Military Working Dog Rico is carried by his owner, retired Tech. Sgt. Jason Spangenberg, to the Veterinary Treatment Facility Jan. 24, 2018, on Dover Air Force Base, Del. MWD Rico retired from the U.S. Air Force Jan. 15, 2016 after serving more than seven years on active duty. (U.S. Air Force photo by Roland Balik)

Tech. Sgt. Rachel Weis, 436th Airlift Wing inspector general inspections NCO in charge, and retired Tech. Sgt. Jason Spangenberg spend a few moments in an examination room with their retired Military Working Dog Rico Jan. 24, 2018, at the Veterinary Treatment Facility on Dover Air Force Base, Del. MWD Rico was humanely euthanized by a U.S. Army veterinarian due to his declining health condition caused by Canine Degenerative Myelopathy. (U.S. Air Force photo by Roland Balik)

Tech. Sgt. Rachel Weis, 436th Airlift Wing inspector general inspections NCO in charge, and retired Tech. Sgt. Jason Spangenberg spend a few moments in an examination room with their retired Military Working Dog Rico Jan. 24, 2018, at the Veterinary Treatment Facility on Dover Air Force Base, Del. MWD Rico was humanely euthanized by a U.S. Army veterinarian due to his declining health condition caused by Canine Degenerative Myelopathy. (U.S. Air Force photo by Roland Balik)

Tech. Sgt. Rachel Weis, 436th Airlift Wing inspector general inspections NCO in charge, gives retired Military Working Dog Rico a kiss on his snout Jan. 24, 2018, at the Veterinary Treatment Facility on Dover Air Force Base, Del. MWD Rico was diagnosed with Canine Degenerative Myelopathy, which led to his retirement back in January 2016. (U.S. Air Force photo by Roland Balik)

Tech. Sgt. Rachel Weis, 436th Airlift Wing inspector general inspections NCO in charge, gives retired Military Working Dog Rico a kiss on his snout Jan. 24, 2018, at the Veterinary Treatment Facility on Dover Air Force Base, Del. MWD Rico was diagnosed with Canine Degenerative Myelopathy, which led to his retirement back in January 2016. (U.S. Air Force photo by Roland Balik)

Retired Tech. Sgt. Jason Spangenberg and Tech. Sgt. Matthew Salter, 436th Security Forces Squadron military working dog kennel master, attempt to take a paw print of Military Working Dog Rico Jan. 24, 2018, at the Veterinary Treatment Facility on Dover Air Force Base, Del. MWD Rico was diagnosed with Canine Degenerative Myelopathy, which led to his retirement back in January 2016. (U.S. Air Force photo by Roland Balik)

Retired Tech. Sgt. Jason Spangenberg and Tech. Sgt. Matthew Salter, 436th Security Forces Squadron military working dog kennel master, attempt to take a paw print of Military Working Dog Rico Jan. 24, 2018, at the Veterinary Treatment Facility on Dover Air Force Base, Del. MWD Rico was diagnosed with Canine Degenerative Myelopathy, which led to his retirement back in January 2016. (U.S. Air Force photo by Roland Balik)

Retired Military Working Dog Rico rests after having his paw print taken by retired Tech. Sgt. Jason Spangenberg, his owner, and Tech. Sgt. Matthew Salter, 436th Security Forces Squadron military working dog kennel master, Jan. 24, 2018, at the Veterinary Treatment Facility on Dover Air Force Base, Del. MWD Rico retired from the U.S. Air Force Jan. 15, 2016, after serving more than seven years on active duty. (U.S. Air Force photo by Roland Balik)

Retired Military Working Dog Rico rests after having his paw print taken by retired Tech. Sgt. Jason Spangenberg, his owner, and Tech. Sgt. Matthew Salter, 436th Security Forces Squadron military working dog kennel master, Jan. 24, 2018, at the Veterinary Treatment Facility on Dover Air Force Base, Del. MWD Rico retired from the U.S. Air Force Jan. 15, 2016, after serving more than seven years on active duty. (U.S. Air Force photo by Roland Balik)

Tech. Sgt. Matthew Salter, 436th Security Forces Squadron military working dog kennel master, cups the snout of retired Military Working Dog Rico while veterinary staff prepare to insert an intravenous needle into one of his front legs Jan. 24, 2018, at the Veterinary Treatment Facility on Dover Air Force Base, Del. MWD Rico was Salter’s first MWD when he arrived at Dover AFB, September 2008. (U.S. Air Force photo by Roland Balik)
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Tech. Sgt. Matthew Salter, 436th Security Forces Squadron military working dog kennel master, cups the snout of retired Military Working Dog Rico while veterinary staff prepare to insert an intravenous needle into one of his front legs Jan. 24, 2018, at the Veterinary Treatment Facility on Dover Air Force Base, Del. MWD Rico was Salter’s first MWD when he arrived at Dover AFB, September 2008. (U.S. Air Force photo by Roland Balik)

Tech. Sgt. Matthew Salter, 436th Security Forces Squadron military working dog kennel master, and Staff Sgt. Ashley Beattie, 436th SFS unit deployment manager, hold the U.S. flag over retired Military Working Dog Rico Jan. 24, 2018, at the Veterinary Treatment Facility on Dover Air Force Base, Del. MWD Rico was humanely euthanized by a U.S. Army veterinarian due to his declining health caused by Canine Degenerative Myelopathy. (U.S. Air Force photo by Roland Balik)
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Tech. Sgt. Matthew Salter, 436th Security Forces Squadron military working dog kennel master, and Staff Sgt. Ashley Beattie, 436th SFS unit deployment manager, hold the U.S. flag over retired Military Working Dog Rico Jan. 24, 2018, at the Veterinary Treatment Facility on Dover Air Force Base, Del. MWD Rico was humanely euthanized by a U.S. Army veterinarian due to his declining health caused by Canine Degenerative Myelopathy. (U.S. Air Force photo by Roland Balik)

Tech. Sgt. Matthew Salter, 436th Security Forces Squadron military working dog kennel master; retired Tech. Sgt. Jason Spangenberg, owner of retired Military Working Dog Rico; and Staff Sgt. Ashley Beattie, 436th SFS unit deployment manager, grieve over the U.S. flag-draped body of MWD Rico Jan. 24, 2018, at the Veterinary Treatment Facility on Dover Air Force Base, Del. MWD Rico was humanely euthanized by a U.S. Army veterinarian due to his declining health condition caused by Canine Degenerative Myelopathy. (U.S. Air Force photo by Roland Balik)
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Tech. Sgt. Matthew Salter, 436th Security Forces Squadron military working dog kennel master; retired Tech. Sgt. Jason Spangenberg, owner of retired Military Working Dog Rico; and Staff Sgt. Ashley Beattie, 436th SFS unit deployment manager, grieve over the U.S. flag-draped body of MWD Rico Jan. 24, 2018, at the Veterinary Treatment Facility on Dover Air Force Base, Del. MWD Rico was humanely euthanized by a U.S. Army veterinarian due to his declining health condition caused by Canine Degenerative Myelopathy. (U.S. Air Force photo by Roland Balik)

Tech. Sgt. Rachel Weis, 436th Airlift Wing inspector general inspections NCO in charge, consoles retired Tech. Sgt. Jason Spangenberg after retired Military Working Dog Rico was humanely euthanized Jan. 24, 2018, at the Veterinary Treatment Facility on Dover Air Force Base, Del. Tech. Sgt. Matthew Salter, 436th Security Forces Squadron military working dog kennel master, touches MWD Rico’s snout as all three said their final goodbye’s. (U.S. Air Force photo by Roland Balik)
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Tech. Sgt. Rachel Weis, 436th Airlift Wing inspector general inspections NCO in charge, consoles retired Tech. Sgt. Jason Spangenberg after retired Military Working Dog Rico was humanely euthanized Jan. 24, 2018, at the Veterinary Treatment Facility on Dover Air Force Base, Del. Tech. Sgt. Matthew Salter, 436th Security Forces Squadron military working dog kennel master, touches MWD Rico’s snout as all three said their final goodbye’s. (U.S. Air Force photo by Roland Balik)

The War Dog Memorial features a picture engraved in granite of then-Staff. Sgt. Jason Spangenberg, 436th Security Forces Squadron, and Military Working Dog Rico, and sits in the Kent County Veterans Memorial Park, Dover, Del., Jan. 25, 2018. The War Dog Memorial was the first of its kind in Delaware. (U.S. Air Force photo by Roland Balik)
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The War Dog Memorial features a picture engraved in granite of then-Staff. Sgt. Jason Spangenberg, 436th Security Forces Squadron, and Military Working Dog Rico, and sits in the Kent County Veterans Memorial Park, Dover, Del., Jan. 25, 2018. The War Dog Memorial was the first of its kind in Delaware. (U.S. Air Force photo by Roland Balik)

A brick with a thank you message lies at the base of the War Dog Memorial in the Kent County Veterans Memorial Park, Dover, Del., Jan. 25, 2018. The War Dog Memorial features a picture engraved in granite of then-Staff. Sgt. Jason Spangenberg, 436th Security Forces Squadron, and Military Working Dog Rico. (U.S. Air Force photo by Roland Balik)
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A brick with a thank you message lies at the base of the War Dog Memorial in the Kent County Veterans Memorial Park, Dover, Del., Jan. 25, 2018. The War Dog Memorial features a picture engraved in granite of then-Staff. Sgt. Jason Spangenberg, 436th Security Forces Squadron, and Military Working Dog Rico. (U.S. Air Force photo by Roland Balik)

DOVER AIR FORCE BASE, Del. -- Members of the 436th Security Forces Squadron, military working dogs and their handlers formed outside the veterinary clinic Jan. 24, 2018, at Dover AFB for Rico’s “last call.”

The eight-year veteran military working dog had been suffering from canine degenerative myelopathy for the last few months, and the decision was made to lay him to rest.

“It’s hard to describe the loss I feel,” said Tech. Sgt. Matthew Salter, 436th SFS kennel master and Rico’s first handler. “I know Rico is in a better place and is running around again finding bombs and biting bad guys, but it’s also sad because my partner isn’t around for me to see whenever I need that look he would give. He had a way of saying ‘get up dad, time to work.’”

That feeling of loss was visible on the faces of all who attended the somber ceremony.

“The unit is feeling the same loss as I am,” Salter said. “These guys not only had him as a partner on the road, but they also take care of the working dogs at night … so they too develop a bond and take ownership for the health and welfare of the dogs in the unit.”

Rico retired from service as a MWD in January 2016 and for the past two years lived as the family pet of his last handler, Jason Spangenberg.

Before that, Spangenberg and Rico tore up Afghanistan, both earning the bronze star for their selfless service detecting more than 100 pounds of explosive material on more than 100 combat missions over a four-month period in 2013. The two also trained more than 300 Afghan local police officers on counter improvised explosive device tactics and techniques.

Their teamwork was even locally recognized on the “War Dog Memorial” featuring their likeness in downtown Dover, which reads: “They protected and watched over us at home and on the field of battle. We are forever grateful for their undying loyalty, devotion and faithful service. They are not forgotten.”

“Special thanks to Staff Sergeant Jason Spangenberg, War Dog ‘Rico,’” reads a brick at the base of the memorial.

While Rico was formally recognized for service with Spangenberg in 2013, throughout his career, he served with a total of three handlers, patrolled the installation and went on several overseas deployments. He even supported dozens of Secret Service missions.

Beloved by his handlers, base and community, Rico touched many lives during his service.

“MWD handlers and their dogs form a bond that is almost indescribable,” Salter said. “These teams put each other’s lives in their hands every day, whether it’s riding patrol and performing security duties at home station or while they are down-range conducting sweeps on vehicles entering bases or out on patrol assisting our sister services looking for [improvised explosive devices] and hostile forces. He has touched countless lives all over the world through the protection he provided to [distinguished visitors], the public and the teams that followed him through the battles of Afghanistan.”

Amongst all the connections Rico made, one stands apart.

“The bond that Rico and I shared was special,” Spangenberg said. “It started off as partners. We then deployed and it completely changed. We became family. I needed him and relied on him to keep me and the others around us safe.”

That special relationship was built over time, through countless moments both on and off the clock.

One defining moment for the two, a moment Spangenberg said he will never forget, occurred on the previously mentioned deployment to Afghanistan.

“I didn’t have the chance to get much mail, and when I did, it was awesome,” Spangenberg said. “In a package, I got like a three-pound bag of beef jerky, which was amazing. I left Rico in my room to go to a 30-minute briefing about a mission. When I came back to the room, Rico had jumped up on the table, grabbed the bag of jerky out of the box and literally ate the entire bag – all in 30 minutes.

“Needless to say, I wasn’t happy and neither was his stomach for the next couple days. I would look at him and just say, ‘Karma sucks, pup.’”

Spangenberg and Salter shared similar tales of their time spent with Rico while base and squadron members paid their respects. A few minutes later, Spangenberg carried Rico the final few steps to the veterinary clinic.

“Honestly, the turnout was amazing,” Spangenberg said. “So many fellow defenders and friends came out, which made it super special – having them there to share that moment. Rico will be missed greatly, not only by me, but my family. From just taking care of him daily to most importantly having his companionship and love. He was an amazing K-9, friend, partner and family member.”

Spangenberg thanked Salter, Staff Sgt. Ashley Beattie, 436th SFS unit deployment manager, and the entire squadron for their outstanding support during the last call ceremony.

“The ‘last call’ is something that police officers all over the nation perform,” Salter explained. “It’s our way of saying the officer is no longer in service or has fallen. It gives us a chance to let everyone monitoring the net to know the officer or K-9 is no longer with us … It’s our way of saying goodbye.”

While Spangenberg carried his ailing friend through a gauntlet of salutes and tears, while security forces members struggled to keep their bearing, while an honor guardsman played the sorrowful 18 notes of taps, these somber words were uttered over the radio: “To all cars, posts and patrols … to all cars, posts and patrols … stand by on all radio transmissions … standby on all radio transmissions. Standby for last call: BDOC to MWD Rico … BDOC to MWD Rico … BDOC to MWD Rico … End of watch for MWD Rico on January 24th, 2018. Rest in peace, MWD Rico.”