The Barkers, Carrie and Cody and their two young children Colby and Carlee, are a military family. Carrie's father, John Collard, was awarded two Bronze Stars as an Army combat medic during Vietnam. Cody is a Major in the United States Air Force and was recently honored with a Bronze Star for his service in Kabul, Afghanistan. Neither, however, is the most decorated member of the family. That distinction belongs to the Barker's dog Uzo.
Uzo, a nine-year-old German shepherd, was a Contract Working Dog Master Corporal that worked alongside special forces in Afghanistan for five years.
Uzo was born at Fort Dix, N.J. in 2004 and owned by a private military contractor, American K-9 Detection Services, LLC. He was trained from birth for three years to work with special forces units where he learned to detect 35 different kinds of explosives and to attack on command.
In 2007, Uzo was contracted out to the Royal Canadian Military, who assigned Uzo to work with their special forces in Afghanistan. During his five continuous years working in Afghanistan, Uzo was credited with more than 20 finds of IEDs or weapons caches as well as countless patrols - one soldier that worked alongside Uzo said the dog took part in more than 200 dismounted patrols in Taliban-controlled territory over a single year alone.
In early 2012, Uzo was finally retired and that's where the Barkers came in. Cody Barker was serving in Afghanistan at the time and had become interested in adopting a military working dog.
Cody still had six months remaining on his tour in Afghanistan, but he arranged for the Barkers to pick up Uzo during his two weeks back home in Utah in February of 2012. Cody needed to spend his precious time home with the kids, so Carrie flew to San Antonio, Texas, to pick Uzo up and fly him back home.
In San Antonio, Uzo was brought to Carrie's hotel and they were briefly introduced before his temporary handlers quickly left. "I had the delusion that with all that training he would be a gentleman but he wasn't, he was a beast," Carrie wrote of the experience.
Uzo seemed nervous. He would pace, chew on Carrie's arms, jump all over the furniture and TV stand, bounced off the walls and raced up and down the hotel's stairwells. When they would go outside, Uzo had to sniff every single car in the parking lot.
Carrie soon realized that Uzo's behavior could be attributed to how he had lived his entire life up until then. Every six hours, precisely, Uzo would make Carrie take him on a patrol of the hotel. They would walk the perimeter and inspect every single car, stairwell and elevator.
Carrie made it through that first day and got Uzo home to his new family in Summit Park. Since then, Uzo has slowly learned that he doesn't need to be quite so diligent in his patrols, but a lot of his protective habits will never go away - not that Carrie minds having such a great guardian for the family.
Carlee, five-years-old, has her own Psychiatric Service Dog, a yellow Lab named Sunshine, to help her with autism. Colby, her twin brother, had been suffering from a disability that caused him to have terrible sleeping patterns. Cody recounted how Uzo's first night with the family changed everything for Colby.
"The very first night, Colby is in a bunk bed and he was on the top. First night, Uzo jumped up in the bed." With Uzo tucked up against him, Colby proceeded to sleep straight through the night for the very first time. "So from that point forward, he was no longer the potential for my dog. He was Colby's dog," Cody said.
Uzo and Colby now sleep together every single night, but the Barkers had to make Colby start sleeping on the bottom bunk so that Uzo wouldn't have to continue to strain himself leaping up to the top.
It is difficult to overstate the impact Uzo has had on the Barkers. Colby has a best friend and Carrie credits Uzo with helping Cody cope with his deployment in Afghanistan and all that goes with it. She credits Uzo with doing the same for her.
"He taught me about what it means to love a veteran and how to get into their head and see things from a new perspective," Carrie wrote. "Uzo has even helped me figure things out with my dad (a military veteran still suffering from post-traumatic stress syndrome) that I never thought about before. Who saved who? Uzo saved me."
Carrie created a Facebook page for Uzo so that she could connect with the soldiers who worked with him. The page worked as hoped, and Carrie estimates that more than half of Uzo's Facebook friends are either military working dog adopters or members of the military that served with Uzo.
Soldiers told Carrie that Uzo saved literally dozens of lives. One solider wrote to Carrie: "I just want to thank you for giving Uzo a home and a chance to finish out his life. Uzo saved my life more than once."
Another soldier told Carrie about Uzo's involvement in "a massive operation we did in the fall of 2010," that is now taught at the Royal Military College of Canada. The soldier indicated the high-esteem which they felt towards Uzo when he explained that a unit commander "shifted assets all over the place to get Uzo assigned to him." That operation, Uzo discovered a very large cache of Taliban weapons and supplies.
Carrie heard similar stories from others.
"The commander, would - if they had to go out on a mission, he would give away assets, trade you assets, to have Uzo on his team. 'You can have this guy if you let me have the dog. You can have one of our Hummers if we can have the dog, you know?'"
Now, the Barkers are huge advocates for military working dogs. They are highly-involved with Military Working Dog Adoptions, the nonprofit organization that helped the Barkers adopt Uzo. They want military working dogs to receive the respect and care they deserve.
Military working dogs are classified by the United States armed forces as "equipment," so they receive no medical treatment once they are retired from service. Medical expenses for retired dogs can be costly, as the dogs have often undergone prolonged physical and mental stresses. Uzo now suffers from a debilitating spinal condition - the result of all the patrolling and riding in various vehicles and jumping in and out of helicopters over five years in rough terrain.
Until recently, thanks in part to advocacy work and lobbying done by Military Working Dog Adoptions, the U.S. military would not even pay the expense to have overseas-deployed working dogs returned to the United States so that they could be adopted.
The Barkers are continuing to bring attention to Uzo's story this summer. Uzo is currently a nominee for a Hero Dog Award, which is a group of awards presented annually by the American Humane Association. Uzo is one of 14 dogs in the military category. To vote for Uzo and to see more profiles of heroic working dogs, visit herodogawards.org.
Though Uzo has slowly adapted to civilian life, he is still a member of the military at heart. When helicopters pass overhead, he stands at attention and viciously wags his tail. When he sees members of the military in uniform, he needs to go over to them to say hello. When the Barkers take Uzo for walks, he will always put himself between the family and any perceived danger, even if it's only the neighbors.
"I just think it's important for people to understand," Carrie said, "that they're soldiers too."