Zino and Spc. Nate Korpusik, his former handler, goof around after being reunited earlier this year. (Courtesy of Nate Korpusik)
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HINESVILLE, GA. — A soldier is getting reacquainted with a close friend who he believes was wrongfully taken from him.
Last year, Spc. Nate Korpusik became a certified K9 handler in the now-defunct program T.E.D.D., which is short for Tactical Explosive Detector Dogs.
"You can't pass up an opportunity like that when it comes," he told First Coast News from his apartment in Savannah.
Korpusik, who is stationed at Fort Stewart, was partnered with a 4-year-old German Shepard named Zino. They spent about a year in Afghanistan bonding together and learning to follow each other's lead.
Dogs like Zino were deployed by the military beginning in 2010 to help combat soldiers find explosives in enemy territory. But Korpusik said they had a much greater purpose.
"I think the bond is what brings you through and makes the day to day life that much better," he emotionally explained.
Korpusik added that the most powerful part of their bond overseas was the comfort and support Zino would unknowingly provide while he was away from family and friends.
He said, "A dog is like one of your kids, and it's hard for some people to understand that. But he is like one of my kids."
Their relationship was put to the ultimate test, though, when they returned from deployment to devastating news earlier this year.
"It was worse than any one day in Afghanistan or any culmination of days in Afghanistan," Korpusik described.
As First Coast News first reported this month, Korpusik was one of about a dozen Fort Stewart soldiers who took to social media to express heartbreak, anger and disappointment over the T.E.D.D. program.
The primary complaint, according to the handlers, was a lack of understanding and communication by the military and companies it contracted and subcontracted with to carry out the program.
The Army said in response to questions submitted by First Coast News that soldiers are not guaranteed the opportunity to adopt their K9s, but that they do get the opportunity to express their intent to adopt.
However, some soldiers to this day claim they have little to no idea where their T.E.D.D. dogs are located. Others have found theirs, but are unable to adopt them.
The outcome of Korpusik and Zino's separation might be the most emotional one of them all, though.
"It makes you feel like your best friend was torn away, and you almost feel helpless to get him back,' he said.
He said he returned Zino to a contracted government kennel in North Carolina called K2 Solutions for an evaluation, which he said is standard protocol.
Then, Korpusik said his best friend was adopted out behind his back. "They said that all the handlers had all been contacted and none of them showed up to pick up their dogs, which is inaccurate because we weren't contacted."
Upon further investigation, FCN has learned K2 lost its government contract in what its CEO calls a "significant situation" around the same time of Zino's alleged adoption.
Korpusik believes dogs like his fell through the cracks.
"(When) a company loses its contract and a new one comes in and takes its place, information does not always get transferred," he stated.
It was only because of social media and endless phone calls that Korpusik was able to find his best friend again. Zino landed with a new owner in North Carolina.
But that person felt so badly about the situation, she gave Zino back to Korpusik without hesitation.
"She was very willing to do it. An absolutely sweetheart," he said.
The two are now closer than ever and are spending a lot of time outside playing fetch. But Korpusik can't help but wish the entire situation would have been handled differently.
"The part that bothers me the most is I think the lack of understanding. Some people that are in these positions just think that the dog is a dog, just a tool," he said.
K2 Solutions denies any involvement in the adoption process. It would not comment about why it lost its contract with the Army.
In a statement to First Coast News regarding the dogs being separated from their handlers, the company said, "... feelings are bound to get hurt."
The T.E.D.D. program has since been discontinued amid complaints and concerns from handlers.