Veteran reunited with service dog at Rikers

A former Marine from California and the bomb-sniffing dog he worked with in Afghanistan reunited for the first time in five years this week at Rikers Island.

The black Labrador, Rodeo, currently serves as a drug-sniffing dog alongside correction officer Thomas Kleister.

"Our job is to search the visitors coming in, the inmates that are here, the housing area, vehicles, packages, mail -- anything they need us to do, we'll do," Kleister says.

But before that, Rodeo accompanied former Marine Cpl. Mitch Romero to Afghanistan to sniff out roadside bombs and other improvised explosive devices. The desert climate proved hard for Rodeo to deal with.

"The weather there was so hot, it got to the point where I literally couldn't even bring him on patrol anymore," Romero says. "His feet were getting burned in the sand."

Heat-related issues prompted Rodeo to be sent home early. When Romero returned a few months later, he began the search for his former canine companion.

He says officials gave him little help.

"They were not allowed to give me information on his whereabouts just because he was still a working dog," the Marine veteran says.

Eventually, Romero says he learned Rodeo had been sold, but he had no information on the buyer. So he took his search to Facebook, and slowly got clues.

"When I made my first post on Facebook looking for him...all I could find out was his ear tag number," Romero says. But a later post attracted attention from Canine Wounded Heroes, a group that primarily provides bulletproof vests to canine officers and pairs former soldiers with therapy dogs.

Canine Wounded Heroes was able to track down Rodeo in less than a day. The group learned that the former military dog had been working at Rikers Island alongside Kleister for three years. 

Rikers officials agreed to set up the reunion, and Canine Wounded Heroes flew Romero and his wife to New York from California.

While Rodeo will remain working at Rikers Island, Romero says he plans to keep in touch with Kleister. 

After the reunion, Canine Wounded Heroes announced that it will donate bulletproof vests for all 14 of the service dogs working at Rikers.

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