"That leaves a mark": Local veteran reflects on relationship with military working dog

Roanoke designates K-9 Veterans Day before emotional speech on service animals

ROANOKE, Va. – A local veteran’s pain is showing the strong bond between humans and animals.

After Mark Smoot and Steve Roragen approached Roanoke officials, City Council declared March 13 as K-9 Veterans Day in its afternoon session yesterday.

The designation honors the sacrifices made by working dogs, including those in law enforcement, rescue operations and the military, and coincides with the national day of recognition by the same name.

Smoot, who served in the U.S. Air Force, gave an emotional speech at the meeting. He’s still heartbroken that, after serving as a handler with a military working dog on the front lines of the Vietnam War, he never got to say goodbye.

“There's an attachment there that will never, ever be broken,” he said. “It's like a family member, only closer.”

Every day, Smoot thinks about the stressful, emotional experiences he had overseas with his dog Jake. He describes going on patrol at night for hours on end with the dog, wondering if they'd make it back alive.

“I knew what my dog was thinking and my dog knew what I was thinking,” Smoot said.

As was protocol then, he was separated from Jake upon leaving the area to return to the U.S.

“That leaves a mark, an emotional mark that will never, ever go away,” he said.

His friend and fellow veteran Steve Roragen, whose nickname is Commando, speaks highly of Smoot’s service.

“Mark is my hero,” he said.

Roragen, who served in the U.S. Army in 1970s, has a new dog in his life. POWMIA is her name. It's pronounced pow-MEE-uh and pays tribute to the two acronyms -- POW, which stands for prisoner of war, and MIA, which stands for missing in action.

As the National Therapy Dog of the 29th and 80th divisions, she’s a national mascot, and she helps other local veterans recover through therapy.

“They’re saving soldiers’ lives and when they get back they continue to save soldiers’ lives,” Roragen said. “They really haven’t received the recognition that they deserve.”

They believe the dogs and their handlers deserve the public’s respect.

“Thank them. Just simply thank them. Wish them well,” Smoot said.

Currently, Smoot still volunteers on local search and rescue operations.