Fallen soldier and his dog honoured in U.K.
Liam and Theo were a team, fast friends doing a dangerous job — searching for roadside bombs laid by insurgents in Afghanistan.
The jovial British soldier and his irrepressible dog worked and played together for months, and died on the same day.
On Thursday they came home, flown back to Britain in a repatriation ceremony for the soldier remembered for his empathy with animals and the companion he loved.
Lance-Cpl. Liam Tasker, a dog handler with the Royal Army Veterinary Corps, was killed in a firefight with insurgents in Helmand Province on March 1 as he searched for explosives with Theo, a bomb-sniffing springer spaniel mix.
The dog suffered a fatal seizure hours later at a British army base, likely brought about by stress.
Military officials won't go so far as to say Theo died of a broken heart, but that may not be far from the truth.
"I think we often underestimate the grieving process in dogs," said Elaine Pendlebury, a senior veterinarian with the U.K. animal charity The People's Dispensary for Sick Animals. "Some dogs react very severely to their partner's loss."
It's not uncommon for pets to respond to an owner's death by refusing food and becoming sick — and the bond between working dogs and their handlers is especially close, Pendlebury said.
"The bonding that I have seen between soldiers or police and their dogs is fantastic. When you see them working together, it's really one unit."
A military Hercules plane carrying Tasker's body and Theo's ashes touched down Thursday at a Royal Air Force base in southwest England.
As the funeral cortege of black vehicles drove slowly away, it was saluted by a long line of military dog handlers, their dogs at their sides.
At the nearby town of Wootton Bassett, where people line the streets in a mark of respect each time a dead soldier is repatriated, dozens stood silently — some with dogs at their feet — as Tasker's friends and family laid roses atop the hearse.
Tasker, 26, from Kirkcaldy in Scotland, spent six years as an army mechanic before joining the military working dog unit in 2007. He felt he had found his calling.
"I love my job and working together with Theo," Tasker said in a profile of the pair released by the British Ministry of Defence before his death.
The soldier and the 22-month-old dog had been in Afghanistan for almost six months, uncovering roadside bombs and weapons in a dangerous daily routine.
Theo had been so successful — finding 14 hidden bombs and weapons caches, a record for a team in Afghanistan — that the dog's tour of duty was extended by a month.
Tasker was the 358th British soldier to die in Afghanistan since the 2001 U.S.-led invasion. Theo was the sixth British military dog that died in Iraq or Afghanistan since 2001.