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Air Force veteran Curtis Hendel spent his days as Military Working Dog handler

The Adrian graduate returned to area following six-year stint in Texas, South Korea.

 Curtis Hendel trains with his dog, Ero, while on a tour of duty in South Korea in the mid-1980s
Curtis Hendel trains with his dog, Ero, while on a tour of duty in South Korea in the mid-1980s
Submitted photo
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ADRIAN — When Curtis Hendel talks about his military career in the U.S. Air Force, it becomes quickly evident that his tour of duty wasn’t something he had to do, but something he wanted to do.

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Looking back through his family tree, he had some relatives who served their country during World War II, but his own journey into military service stemmed from ride-alongs he did with a local law enforcement officer and his K9.

A 1985 graduate of Adrian High School, Hendel dreamed of becoming a Military Working Dog Handler, training K9s to work in all branches of the military, as well as in civilian settings. The K9s were trained in everything from obedience to controlled aggression, finding and locating humans, and even to sniff out narcotics and explosives.

It’s the type of military job that perhaps doesn’t sound like a job, but more of an adventure. And there was stiff competition among military recruits to make the cut.

Hendel left southwest Minnesota in the summer of 1985, bound for basic training at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas.

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“The Air Force was the best to get into law enforcement with a guaranteed job,” Hendel explained. “But there was no guarantee you could become a dog handler.”

After his selection to the K9 unit, Hendel remained at Lackland AFB for K9 school, spending six and a half months at the southern Texas air base.

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Curtis Hendel, Adrian, is shown with Valley, a German Shepherd used as a training aid for new handlers at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas.
Submitted photo

He then was assigned to be a patrol dog handler at Osan Air Base in South Korea. Every night, he and his dog worked the perimeter of the air base to make sure no unauthorized people entered.

“It was a one-year tour, but right before I was supposed to come back, I extended for a second tour because I didn’t want to leave my dog behind,” Hendel shared.

At the end of his second year, Hendel returned to Lackland AFB to work in the Military Working Dog training program. It was here that trainers were assigned to work with three to five dogs daily and get them ready for their ultimate assignments.

The dogs — primarily German Shepherds and Belgian Malinois — were brought in from Europe with some training.

“We finished training to bring them up to our standards,” Hendel said.

Working with the dogs both on and off leash, they learned their obedience commands and were trained to do specific tasks that would be required of them for their military role.

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Back then, dog handlers didn’t have bite suits or the protective gear available today.

“We had a heavy burlap wrap on one arm,” Hendel said with a laugh. “You had to make sure the dog found the right spot.”

Part of being a handler is building trust with your K9, but during controlled aggression (bite work) training, the handlers didn’t just work with their own dogs, but served as decoys for the other dogs as well.

“I only got a few good bites in all my years — three or four that required me to go to the hospital to get them cleaned out,” Hendel said. “I had friends of mine who got bit much, much worse. It was just a risk associated with the dog.”

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During his six years in the military, Hendel said several of the dogs he trained went on to perform perimeter patrol at bases for asset protection, while others went on to train in narcotics or explosives.

While Hendel enjoyed working with all dogs, he said it was the personality of German Shepherds that he really appreciated. And since he trained three to five dogs at a time, it wasn’t difficult to see them advance and start with a new set of dogs.

“I was just there to adjust their behavior and bring them up to our standards,” Hendel said. “You knew that’s what you were doing with them, and with that many dogs, you never made a huge connection.”

That wasn’t the case, though, with the dog he served with in South Korea.

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“(That dog) I mourn to this day,” he said. “When I got him, he still had a lot of issues to fix. When he was attuned, he was better than any human.”

After his six-year military career came to an end, Hendel returned to southwest Minnesota with the hopes of establishing a dog training business.

“There weren’t a lot of dogs in the area and there just weren’t enough dogs to make it work,” he said.

For a time, he raised bloodhounds, and was actually called in to assist with a search for a toddler who became lost in a cornfield near New Ulm. His dogs were successful in finding the little tyke. In another call for assistance, Hendel and his bloodhounds located the body of a man who drowned in a river.

These days, the only dog Hendel and his wife have is the granddog they frequently care for. Their son got a Boston terrier two years ago, and the pooch spends weekdays with Hendel’s wife, who works remotely.

As for Hendel, life after the military included doing carpentry with his dad for a few years, then working for a grain and livestock farmer for 22 years. Four and a half years ago, he was hired by the Nobles County Public Works department and spends his days working on the roads.

Hendel said he’s not a guy who has many regrets, but the one thing he shared is that he didn’t appreciate the military uniform as much when he wore it as he does today. Back then, it was just his occupation, he said.

Honoring veterans

Aside from Hendel’s full-time job, the current commander of Adrian’s American Legion spent more than a decade working on a special project to recognize veterans from western Nobles County.

The culmination of that project is a book Hendel completed four years ago called “Our Veterans: Courage, Commitment and Service.” The book was published by the Nobles County Review, with whom Hendel collaborated to profile veterans once per month in the newspaper.

“I think it was about a 14-year process,” Hendel said of the information gathering. The project began when a Korean War veteran from Adrian died and Hendel asked if he could write something for the paper about his service.

That led to the idea of featuring as many area veterans as they could — some 500 in all from communities and farms between Rushmore, Wilmont, Adrian, Ellsworth and Lismore.

“It’s veterans of all years … from western Nobles County,” Hendel said. “We combined them in a book — it turned out being a very unique project.”

Copies of the book are still available for purchase from the Nobles County Review or the Adrian American Legion.

“I went through years worth of papers to get information on people’s service time,” Hendel said. “I probably found 100 of them that way.”

While Hendel said the project was overwhelming at times, he felt a bit sad when the last page was completed.

“But, it was really satisfying to see the finished product,” he added.

The completion of the book happened the same year in which Hendel was named commander of the Adrian American Legion, which boasts 80-some veteran members.

In addition to his role there, Hendel speaks from time to time about his service and time in the military. He will serve as the guest speaker of Adrian’s Veterans Day program, which is slated to begin at 9:30 a.m. Friday in the Adrian High School gymnasium.

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