In an Oct. 11 photo, Gage Lamothe and his bomb-sniffing black Lab, Willy, are seen in Sault Ste. Marie, Mich. The two were reunited in Virginia after completing a tour of duty in Afghanistan. (Michael McKee / The Evening News via AP)
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SAULT STE. MARIE, Mich. — When word recently arrived in the Sault that Willy was ready for adoption, Gage LaMothe didn't hesitate.
And a half-day of driving 800 or so odd miles to Virginia wasn't going to stand in the way for this former Marine.
LaMothe arrived in less than 24 hours.
"We had been separated for seven months," said the Sault High graduate. "I wasn't sure if he was going to recognize me, but as soon as he smelled me he just freaked out — it was awesome."
Willy is a bomb dog trained to pick up any kind of scent that could be used as an explosive. Paired with E-3 LaMothe, they uncovered nine explosive devices, a Soviet hand grenade, one anti-personnel land mine, 120 feet of detonating cord, 23 blasting caps and 320 pounds of homemade explosive on a tour of Afghanistan from August 2011 to March of this year.
"Me and Willy hold the record for most finds," said LaMothe.
LaMothe had already completed two tours in hostile lands when he decided to become a dog handler.
"I volunteered for it," he said, explaining his motivation. "I witnessed one of my friends die after stepping on an IED. If I could save just one life, it would be worth it."
After training with for five months, they were deployed to Afghanistan, where they spent every moment together.
"On some of the operations, he was the only thing to pack to keep me warm," said LaMothe, noting it can get awfully cold at night in the desert, and the foot patrols required him to carry in Willy's dog food and water, instead of a sleeping bag. "I would curl up with him at night."
After returning from his third tour of duty, LaMothe was honorably discharged from the Marines. He said, without going into detail, the only reason he returned from his last stint was because of Willy: "He saved my life, twice."
Willy, however, just 4 years old, was scheduled to get a new handler and return for another deployment. But it seems Willy was a one-man dog.
"They tried five handlers, but he wouldn't take to them," said LaMothe.
After seven months of trying, the military gave up and allowed Willy to retire. LaMothe was waiting.
"As soon as I got back to America, I instantly filled out the paperwork," said LaMothe, who volunteered to take Willy in once he was out of military service. "(Recently) I got the email that said, ‘Willy's ready for adoption.' "
The two have been inseparable ever since.
LaMothe initially thought he was going to be forced to move out of his place but credited landlord John Bumstead for making an exception.
"The guy told me ‘no animals allowed,' " said LaMothe, "but when I told him about Willy, he let me stay."
When asked if he plans to work with Willy at airports or in some other bomb-sniffing capacity, LaMothe said he didn't envision that in their future.
"He ... earned his right to just be a retired dog now," he explained. "I might turn him into a bird dog, though. He's an extremely smart animal."
LaMothe is the son of Tony LaMothe and Charlene LeBlanc and said he plans to stick around the Sault for at least a year and attend school next fall using the G.I. Bill.