Jens Manuel Krogstad, Des Moines Register
DES MOINES, Iowa - Marine Sgt. Ross Gundlach said he wasn't going to cry in uniform.
His were among the few dry eyes today in the State Capitol rotunda. Dozens of people, including Gov. Terry Branstad, attended a surprise reunion (video below) between Gundlach and Casey, a golden Labrador that served with him in Afghanistan.
Gundlach, 25, and Casey, 4, forged a bond in the rugged terrain of Afghanistan's south Helmand Province, sweeping roads for bombs.
"About midway through, I told her if we made it out alive I'd do whatever it took to find her," Gundlach said. "I owe her. I want to take care of her...I'll just try to give her the best life she can have from here on out."
Gundlach and Casey last saw each on June 3, 2012. Casey had gone on to serve in the Iowa State Fire Marshal's office. Gundlach is enrolled at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, his hometown.
Gundlach had traveled to Iowa under the impression that he would have to plead his case before a government committee to get Casey back. State Fire Marshal Ray Reynolds said he wasn't surprised Gundlach made the trip.
Last night, Gundlach told Reynolds that he last saw Casey 333 days, 14 hours and 20-some minutes ago.
"The first time I talked to him... (Gundlach) said, 'I would swim to Japan to get my dog," Reynolds said.
The reunion was made possible by the Iowa Elks Association, which donated $8,500 to replace Casey with another dog at the State Fire Marshal's office. Casey's General Store paid for Marine Sgt. Kyle Williams to travel to present Casey to Gundlach. The trio served together in Afghanistan.
Despite their time apart, it appeared Casey remembered Gundlach well. Her paws slipped out from under her from excitement when they saw each other, and her tail wagged throughout the 30-minute presentation.
As Lt. Gov. Kim Reynolds explained the dangers Gundlach and Casey faced during more than 150 missions together, Casey placed her front paws on Gundlach's shoulders and licked his face.
"It touches your heart," said Elaine Haugen, 68, the wife of a Vietnam War veteran who attended the event. "We really have no way of knowing what those two experienced. We only surmise that we do."