Six weeks ago, Army Spc. Alec Alcoser, 22, and his working dog, Alex, were on patrol just outside Bagram Airfield, the largest U.S. military base in Afghanistan when a young man approached.
According to the San Antonio Express-News, two Afghan and three Czech soldiers stepped between Alcoser and the young Afghan to conduct a search. Alcoser called Alex back, bending down to get a cigarette. Then, a flash. Alex yelped. A firefight erupted. The dog and the soldier stayed together.
“I would yell at him and his ears would twitch, but he wouldn’t look at me,” Alcoser said in the Army Times. He calls San Antonio home. “I think he was in a state of shock. He didn’t growl, he didn’t bark, he didn’t cry. He stayed right there.”
Last week, the pair were reunited at the South Texas Veterans Health Care System’s Polytrauma Rehabilitation Center. Alcoser was emotional. Alex licked his face. The last time they had seen one another they were in Washington, D.C., where both received the Purple Heart.
This time, though, if all goes as planned, the pair will be together for good.
Alcoser was 6.5 months into a nine-month deployment when the suicide bomber attack occurred. On days off, they shared a bed. On duty days, they shared rituals.
“On a day with a mission, we’d wake up, I would give him a doggie treat and I would have some ice cream before we went out, and when we got back, we usually slept,” Alcoser recalled.
“That was a normal day for me and Alex out there,” he said, adding that a taste for sweets was born of his association with troops in special operations forces. “It was kind of their thing to eat a sweet because you never know if that’s going to be your last when you go out.”
The Aug. 5 left Alcoser with shrapnel wounds, broken bones and a mild traumatic brain injury, but doctors say he escaped without any loss in cognitive ability. Alex lost his back left leg. Both are learning how to get around again.
The shrapnel wounds cover about 30 percent of Alcoser’s body, most in his lower extremities. Its emergence is a slow and painful process. Both his arms and legs were broken, among other bones. He uses a cane or a walker. Alex limps sometimes, too.
There are goals to reduce the vet’s dependence on pain meds and in time get him well enough to start work at the Center for the Intrepid at JBSA-Fort Sam Houston.
“They’re estimating about four to six months, and so I’m already a month and almost half in, and I’m already walking, so I think I’m going to beat that time,” he said. “Either way, the doctors say I have a pretty good chance of making a full recovery, and that’s all that matters. I’ve got to get back to my dog. That’s the important part.”
Multiple surgeries over the past several weeks make medical memories hazy. There is lots of rehab in his future. Alex, who is 8 and a half, was trained to detect explosives and corner suspects who try to run and hide, doesn’t realize he’s retired.
He tried to search a car after arriving at Audie Murphy VA Hospital.
“When they’re old and retired, they still don’t know they’re not supposed to work,” said Regina Johnson, a retired Army dog handler who works in the Defense Department’s DoD Military Working Dog Breeding Program at Lackland.
Alcoser is not daunted by the frustrations of learning to walk again. He has wife, Misty, and an infant son. His mother, who lives in Houston, drives to the hospital to visit every weekend. In time, he’d like to return to his post at Fort Drum, New York. He’d like to be a Sergeant one day.
He thinks on fallen brothers often. The Afghans and Czechs took the worst of what the suicide bomber brought. Though the former survived, the Czechs were killed instantly.
“There’s no point in being mad or sad or anything like that. I’ve got to live through the people who died for me, so they give me a lot of strength,” he said. “And Alex ain’t complaining, so I don’t think I should, either. His injuries are a little worse than mine,” Alcoser said.
“A lot of people call him a dog, but I think he’s a little more than that. He’s a soldier.”