Army Specialist Jake Carlberg and his dog Abby spent over a year sniffing out bombs in Afghanistan. They served with distinction, bonded, and saved lives.
"He would always say that she was his best friend," said Glenna Carlberg, Jake’s wife. "They searched for bombs for his company. … They found seven."
That was good enough to make them one of the top dog teams in their brigade, she said, but it was not enough to ensure they would be able to stay together after Abby was retired.
When they returned home, Jake tried for months to reunite with Abby. However, the Army, going against its own policy, had given Abby to a private contractor that tried to sell her to a foreign government before ultimately abandoning her in a Virginia kennel.
Abby is one of 13 dogs the Army gave to Soliden Technologies LLC, in contravention of procedures stating that the dogs' former handlers should have the first opportunity to adopt them. Instead of being reunited with the veterans with whom they had served overseas, the dogs became pawns in a complicated and ultimately failed scheme to sell them for more work overseas. When the plan to sell the dogs fell through, their caretaker at the time says he was told to "dispose" of them.
The Tactical Explosive Detection Dog program (TEDD) to which Jake and Abby belonged sent hundreds of bomb-sniffing dogs to Iraq and Afghanistan as a countermeasure to the threat of improvised explosive devices. The program was similar to, but distinct from, the Military Working Dog program (MWD).
When the program ended in February 2014, the Army’s Office of the Provost Marshal General (OPMG) had to determine what to do with the remaining 229 dogs.
"Seventy were retained by the Army," Army spokesman Troy A. Rolan Sr. told the Washington Free Beacon. "The remaining 159 were made available for adoption at no cost to the individual or agency adopting the dogs. Sixty-three were adopted by law enforcement agencies, 47 were adopted by private citizens, and unfortunately due to medical or aggression issues, nine were euthanized."
Handlers were supposed to be given first preference in the adoption process, the Army said. Police departments and civilians would be able to adopt any dogs that were left.
Activists for the group Justice for TEDD Handlers claim the OPMG considered their program inferior to the MWD program and, as such, prioritized moving the dogs off their books as quickly as possible rather than giving handlers an opportunity to adopt the dogs they worked with. As proof, they point to a 2011 quote from Lt. Col. Richard A. Vargus, a TEDD program director.
"It’s different from our military working dog community because they’re not professional handlers," Vargus told the Army Times.
Activists say this attitude motivated the OPMG to conduct a mass adoption at the North Carolina facilities of K2 Solutions, a defense contractor that had housed the dogs since they returned from duty. The New York Post reported in February of last year that dozens of dogs were adopted out to civilians during an event in February 2014.
Two months before that adoption event, Glenna emailed OPMG to find out how she and Jake could adopt Abby. She was told by an OPMG coordinator that the dog was still a "viable asset" to the program, but that she would be informed when that changed. Glenna inquired again about Abby’s status on Feb. 10, 2014. Two weeks later, she was told Abby had been adopted out.
All dogs go to … contractors
Abby, along with a dozen other TEDD dogs, had been given to the private contractor Soliden Technologies LLC during the adoption event.
"The owners of Soliden Technologies came to the adoption event in North Carolina and advised Army representatives that they were training former MWDs to be service dogs for veterans," Rolan said. "They provided the requisite information and adopted 13 TEDDs."
Despite Soliden’s claim that they were training the dogs to become service animals for veterans, texts, emails, and eyewitness accounts show the company intended to sell the dogs to foreign countries to be reused in military roles.
That intention violated conditions the Army set for adopted military dogs: Records obtained by the Free Beacon show the dogs must not "be used for any illegal purpose, police or security related activity, private business activity, substance detection either public or private, nor be given or sold to another person."
However, it appears there was no oversight to ensure those requirements were followed.
"Since the Army did not contract Soliden for any action concerning MWDs, any additional information pertaining to their intentions or actions must be obtained from Soliden," Rolan said when asked if the Army would have permitted the adoptions if it believed Soliden intended to sell the dogs.
The Army claims only three out of hundreds of TEDD adoptions were mishandled. Two of the three, Abby and another dog named Gilek, were given to Soliden. The Army did not answer why it considered those two adoptions mishandled but not the other 11 involving Soliden.
The lack of oversight and apparent negligence in the Army’s TEDD adoption process had a dramatic effect on Gilek’s handler, according to his wife "Anne Smith." Smith's real name is not being used at her request.
"It’s hard because he’s still active duty," Smith said. "I’m fearful that I don’t want to cause problems for him because we’ve already witnessed corruption and disregard for military regulations and the law in general."
She said reuniting with Gilek was on her husband’s mind as soon as he returned home from the war.
"My husband John had difficulty transitioning from his deployment without Gilek," Smith said. "Among the few sentences he spoke on the drive home from the airport were: ‘I miss Afghanistan. I miss my dog.'"
When the Smiths attempted to find Gilek, an OPMG official told them that she had been adopted on Feb. 3, 2014, by "an organization that trains service dogs for veterans."
"It didn’t make sense why they wouldn’t have followed regulation, why John wouldn’t have been given priority," Smith said, lamenting changes she saw in her husband thanks to his separation from the dog. "He didn’t come back from that deployment whole, in a way that was separate from how an infantryman returns from war a different man."
Where is Abby?
After contacting Soliden Technologies, which was registered in Virginia to Dean Henderson in 2013, Jake and Glenna Carlberg were told they could have Abby back.
"Dean was very knowledgeable as to which dog we were talking about, promised us we could have her, said he’d even give us the dog food that they had for her and her kennel," Glenna said. "We were finally given the OK to come and pick her up on Mother’s Day weekend."
Jake was excited about reuniting with Abby, and was given a pass from work so he could pick her up. However, when Jake called Henderson the day before the trip, he was told the dog had been moved to Michigan to visit a veterinarian.
"Then he told us that she was going to be starting a contract in July with the Panama Canal and [Jake] just pretty much gave up at that point," Glenna said. "We had our child three months early so he was on leave. He offered to drive to Michigan to get her. He offered to drive to Virginia to get her."
"At that point, Dean just stopped responding."
A new Mount Hope
The families of other TEDD handlers told the Free Beacon of similar interactions with Henderson, who claimed the dogs were in Michigan or on their way to foreign countries.
Instead, the day they picked up the 13 TEDD dogs at K2’s kennel, Henderson and associate Jaime Solis brought them to the Mount Hope kennel in Virginia, owned by Greg Meredith. The dogs remained there for the next 17 months.
Meredith said the two men came to him on Feb. 10, 2014, showed him Secret Service badges, and offered a thousand dollars and the promise of future payments to rehabilitate the dogs so they could be sold to the Panamanian government.
The Secret Service said Henderson and Solis do not appear on its current employee roster, but it could not rule out that they had previously been employed by the agency.
For Meredith, the meeting was the beginning of a yearlong ordeal that left him near bankruptcy and in fear of losing his kennel and home. During that time, Meredith said he incurred hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt caring for the dogs, endured threats from Army officials and their associates, and refused requests to euthanize the dogs.
He also got in a number of heated exchanges with Soliden over compensation for the dogs’ care.
"I don’t know where the disconnect is but the empty promises have got to stop and I need the money that I earned," Meredith texted Solis during one argument on May 16, 2015. "I need the truth and what is owed me. I have done my job above and beyond. I need you to do yours."
"Greg, your every word is our concern as well," Solis responded. "We are still working with our partner."
By the end of that month, more than a year after taking in the dogs, Meredith had not been paid and was feeling increasing pressure from his creditors. Henderson assured him that payment was on the way, saying his partner was close to finalizing a deal with a foreign country.
"Greg, the VP of Nastec is going to contact [the creditor] and talk to her about extending you for a few days," Henderson texted Meredith on May 30, 2015. "They believe the contract will be signed in a few days and they will front Jaime and I with the total amount of the contract. We will then be able to pay you for everything. This is straight from the horse, not watered down."
Nastec is an international security contractor based in California. Solis and Henderson connected with Nastec through Anthony Chapa, according to Meredith. Chapa worked as an assistant director of the Secret Service, where both Solis and Henderson told Meredith they worked, and has been involved with a number of security contractors since he retired in 2008. Chapa and Solis met with Vice President Joe Biden to discuss law enforcement-related issues as representatives of Hispanic police groups. The two were also pictured together at an event for the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial.
According to Meredith, Chapa’s connections with foreign governments from his work in the Secret Service were key to the plan to sell the 13 dogs—and potentially many more.
"They even told me that they were going to get another hundred-plus dogs in here for me to rehab and train to get ready to go to Colombia," he said. "They were going to get paid to build the facility here to house them. They were going to do all this and everything."
Nastec, Henderson, Solis, and Chapa did not respond to requests for comment.
‘Dispose of the dogs'
By June 2015, Meredith suspected that Soliden’s money would never come, so he began searching for a way to adopt out the dogs while recouping his costs. The last straw came on June 5, 2015, when he got a call from Henderson telling him to "dispose" of the dogs.
Renee James, one of Meredith’s friends who often cared for dogs at Mount Hope, witnessed the call.
"[Henderson said] the dogs had aged out and that they’re going to replace them with younger K9 police dogs, is what I remember," she said. "And that he can dispose of the dogs that he currently had. I looked at Greg and I was just like, I mean my heart just sank."
The same day, in emails seen by the Free Beacon, Meredith turned to Army officials Richard Vargus and Robert Squires on the recommendation of an employee at K2.
"I need help Sir and the sooner the better," Meredith wrote to Vargus. "My heart is heavy knowing that this group has even more dogs to be abandoned and abused. Thank you for speaking with me and any help will be most appreciated. I am out of money and out of time."
"I know there are some former handlers that will be ecstatic and more than willing to adopt their former wartime companion," responded Squires, who worked with Vargus on the TEDD program. "Once I receive the list of dogs from you, I will get the dogs adopted out as fast as I can. I appreciate you reaching out to us and looking out for these combat vets!"
But Meredith said shortly afterward he received a call with a dramatically different message.
"Squires told me I had two options," he said. "One, turn over the dogs to him because they were still [Defense Department] property or, two, he would come take them by force."
The phone call from Squires was not the only threat Meredith claims he received. On June 22, 2015, a man named Jerry Avery showed up unannounced at Mount Hope looking for Abby.
"[Avery] wanted to buy Abby from me," Meredith said. "He had $5,000 in cash in his hand and I told him the dog wasn’t for sale. That’s when they started threatening me that they were going to come take them all by force and if they didn’t they were going to get a group of lawyers to put me out of business."
Squires denies he threatened to take the dogs from Meredith by force. In an email to the Free Beacon, he said the Army was willing to help him reunite the dogs with their handlers, but that any compensation for the dogs’ care was a private matter between Meredith and Soliden.
He also said the Army has no say over what happens to TEDD dogs once they are adopted.
"Once Soliden Technology adopted the dogs, it’s on them on what happens with the dogs," Squires said in a separate phone conversation with the Free Beacon. "The government no longer has any say-so with the dogs once they’re adopted."
Squires became agitated as the interview continued, saying the handlers needed to "put their big boy pants on" and "grow up."
"It’s not against the law to adopt the dogs to whoever the hell the government wants to," Squires said. "It’s the government’s dogs, it’s not the damn handler’s dogs. Do you understand that? It belongs to the Department of Defense; it does not belong to those individual handlers."
"Don’t call me again, fucker, you understand me?" Squires said.
Vargus referred all questions to Army Public Affairs when contacted by the Free Beacon.
The day after Meredith’s contentious call with Squires, he received an email from Vargus repeating the original offer to help adopt the dogs. The email went on to claim "it is apparent that your focus and intention is to sell these former Army Dogs."
"I’m offended by the tone you are taking with me making it seem like I am doing anything wrong," Meredith wrote. "No offer has been made to pay the cost in taking care of these dogs for the last 16 months. I have and will continue to uphold my obligation to these TEDD dogs. You are asking me to bankrupt myself an [sic] my business not offering any assistance in the cost of the care for these K9’s."
Communication between the Army officials and Meredith became sporadic, then ceased. Meredith connected with Mission K9 Rescue and the United States War Dogs Association, which helped him track down many of the dogs’ handlers.
Many of the handlers believe Meredith saved their dogs.
"I strongly believe if it weren’t for him being placed in their journey, they would have been murdered in an effort to cover up what had been done," Anne Smith said.
At the height of their search, the Smiths thought they would never see Gilek again.
"I really thought that whoever had her, especially if it was a veteran, would be attached to her and wouldn’t want to give her back," Smith said. "So, I really didn’t have much hope that we would find her or that we would ever have her back."
The Smith family is now happily reunited with Gilek, though they still fear retribution for speaking out.
The Carlbergs’ case was more tragic. In July 2014, Jake Carlberg wrote on Facebook that he suspected Soliden was being dishonest about Abby. "He's going to give us the run around in hopes that we will give up and he will continue to get his money's worth out of our battle buddy's," he wrote. "Sounds like the American dream right?"
Several months later, Jake posted a picture of him and Abby from their time in Afghanistan, but seemed resigned to her absence; when asked by a friend where Abby was, he responded "Ecuador or Panama."
On Feb. 12, 2015, two years after the Army had given away Abby to someone else, Jake was killed in a car accident.
He never got to see Abby again.
However, Glenna and her two young sons, Ian and Gavin, were reunited with the dog in August 2015.
"It was really emotional because I just know how many hours he spent trying to find her and the companionship they made over there," she said. "It was hard having her come home and he wasn’t here to see it and have her, but I know that he’s up there and loving every minute of it."
"It definitely helps my oldest child, who’s about to be six, because he feels like the rest of us do: that we have a part of Jake there. Abby was with him and they did so much together that it feels like having a piece of him."
Justice delayed, likely denied
As the Department of Defense investigates the TEDD dog adoption process, it is unclear if anyone will face consequences for the ordeal.
Meredith recently obtained a judgment against Soliden, but he is worried he may never be paid. A fundraising campaign to recoup the $150,000 Meredith said he spent caring for the dogs has only raised about a third of its goal. He is still on the verge of losing his kennel.
Meredith said he is more upset by the idea that Henderson and Solis were prepared to kill the dogs for being an inconvenience than the costs he incurred.
"The one thing that bites me in the ass the most is that Dean and Jaime are supposed to be retired Marines and Secret Service and these dogs are veterans," he said.
Most of the dogs Soliden brought to Mount Hope were reunited with their handlers in the end. A dog named Dakota remains unaccounted for after allegedly being given by Soliden to a veterinarian technician.
Betsy Hampton, the founder of Justice for TEDD Handlers, hopes justice is coming.
"We believe the public needs to know what happened," said Hampton. "The people involved need to be punished, and the contractors like Soliden Technologies should not be given additional contracts. Military working dogs need to stop being considered equipment and not be used up until every bit of life is gone. We don’t want this to happen again."
Kaitlyn Ann Beiswanger contributed to this report.