A Defense Department family is seeking answers after their two beloved bulldogs died, apparently from heat prostration, during a military-contracted flight from South Korea to Seattle.
“Nothing will ever be the same for our family,” said Anne Surette, whose husband, Timothy, is a civilian employee of the Defense Intelligence Agency. “Everything has been a nightmare that will not go away.”
The Surette family boarded a Patriot Express flight, a commercial airliner contracted by Air Mobility Command, and left South Korea Aug. 17 during the first leg of their permanent change of station move to Washington, D.C. In the hold were the family’s two pets, she said,11-year-old Winter, an Olde English bullldog, and 5-year-old Soju, a French bulldog. Both were healthy before the flight, she said.
When the plane stopped for a scheduled layover at Misawa Air Base, Japan, they were able to take the dogs out to walk and feed them. Both dogs were okay at that point, she said.
But after the passengers reboarded the plane, they were told there would be a delay. As the plane sat on the tarmac, it lost power and the air conditioner quit working, Even so, for the next two hours, no one could leave the plane, including the dogs.
“It was hot in the cabin for us,” she said.
About 40 minutes into that delay, the flight attendant said they had checked on the dogs and given them water; later they said they opened the door to allow air flow for the dogs.
But when they arrived in Seattle, after an 8½-hour flight, they were informed their dogs didn’t make it, Surette said. The Surettes found that Winter’s water bottle had disappeared and Soju’s bottle was empty.
Ironically, the Surettes had decided to take that flight because it was supposed to be a temperature-controlled aircraft. Patriot Express flights can accept pets for transportation during a PCS move on a limited space-available basis. The rates vary from $125 to $375, depending on the weight of the pet.
“What happened that it was so hot for Winter and Soju to suffer and then [leave] us?” Surette wrote in a Facebook post that same day “Why didn’t they take the dogs out when we had to wait in the heat for almost two hours?”
She posted pictures of their deceased dogs and noted that both Soju and Winter looked like they were sleeping.
“Their bodies were stiff and hard,” she said.”
No other pets died on this flight, according to the Air Mobility Command.
The day after their flight, Aug. 18, two Air Force officers came to meet them at their hotel, Surette told Military Times. “They said they would be in touch with the command team in Japan and launch an investigation,” she said.
Air Mobility Command leaders “were able to meet with the family on Friday to express condolences, answer their questions and offer support,” said Air Force 1st Lt. James Stewart, in an Aug. 23 email response to questions. AMC officials have looked into the circumstances surrounding this mission, which involved a mix of military and contracted support, he said.
“Once passengers and pets were loaded onto the plane, the international charter service personnel take over the remainder of coordination for preparing the aircraft, passengers and pets for flight,” he said. “It is at this point that AMC personnel were no longer involved in the immediate decision-making and preparation of flight.
“However, AMC leadership and teams will continue to work on improving processes for our families and their pets,” he said.
“While we cannot change the outcome of this unfortunate situation, AMC leadership is analyzing the circumstances of this mission and are committed to doing all they can to reduce negative outcomes while still providing pet transport for our service members.”
The deaths of the two pet bulldogs comes just over a year after the four-star general in charge of Air Mobility Command apologized to military families for the deaths of three dogs during overseas moves during a two-week period in July 2022.
In a statement emailed to Military Times, Liz K. Hensel, CEO and founder of Leave No Paws Behind USA, said she is “disappointed and heartbroken for the family who lost their two dogs.” The organization’s mission is helping military families with their pet transportation costs when they move to and from overseas locations.
“Not only is this unacceptable but it could have been completely avoidable. Service members shouldn’t have to think, ‘Is my pet going to survive this flight?’ when PCSing,” Hensel said.
“Air Mobility Command needs to answer to this family. What are the contingency plans if there is another power loss and you have pets in cargo? Are there air conditioned rooms nearby for pets and families to wait in? This family will never be the same due to their negligence. This family and all the other families will never be the same.”
Until now, and “despite it being one of the hottest years on record, AMC had suffered one pet fatality this season,” Stewart said. He noted AMC has made a number of changes over the past year to improve pet safety, to include authorizing pets to stay in AMC terminals with their owners until boarding and loading pets as late as possible. The animals are also taken off the plane at transit locations and loaded as late as possible for the next flight segment, so they aren’t in the lower compartment for the full duration of the route.
“Ground air-conditioning units are also used to cool the lower compartment in the aircraft if and when available,” he said.
“We deeply regret the deaths of these pets,” Stewart said. “We take the movement of families and pets very seriously, and that’s why we’ve adjusted our procedures and have implemented changes to better serve customers. We continue to coordinate with air carriers to improve travel and we take pride and professionalism to ensure passengers, families and their pets receive the best service and care that we can offer.”
According to information provided to Military Times by Air Mobility Command in 2022, 16 animals had died between 2017, when AMC began transporting pets around the world, and 2022. In those five years, AMC had transported nearly 46,000 pets.
Fourteen of the pets that died were dogs of snub-nosed breeds, like bulldogs and pugs, whose shortened snouts make them more prone to respiratory problems.
A number of airlines severely restrict or eliminate travel for certain breeds, health conditions and climates.
Stewart noted the trends of certain breeds, such as snub/short-nosed dogs, that are at greater risk for air transport. This is briefed to travelers before their travel, and they are required to acknowledge they’ve considered the risk, he said.
AMC officials advise travelers to follow their AMC travel page for the most up-to-date information, and to read the pet travel pamphlet that’s provided to everyone traveling on Patriot Express flights. Pet owners should also check with their veterinarian.
The American Veterinarian Medical Association notes that the U.S. Department of Transportation released statistics in 2010 showing that short-nosed breeds of dogs — such as pugs, Boston terriers, boxers, some mastiffs, Pekingese, Lhasa Apsos, Shih tzus and bulldogs — are more likely to die on airplanes than dogs with normal-length muzzles.
Because of these shortened muzzles, the organization states, “they don’t breathe as efficiently as dogs with normal-length snouts and can have difficulty cooling off when they’re playing or exercising, or if they’re stressed or overheated.”
But questions remain about what measures were taken in the extreme heat when the aircraft lost power.
Over the past few years, transportation of pets during PCS has become increasingly difficult and expensive for military families.
Under a new Defense Department policy that takes effect Jan. 1, troops on PCS orders may be reimbursed for the eligible costs of relocating one dog or one cat per move. The DoD policy allows reimbursement of up to $2,000 if the move is made to or from overseas.
Karen has covered military families, quality of life and consumer issues for Military Times for more than 30 years, and is co-author of a chapter on media coverage of military families in the book "A Battle Plan for Supporting Military Families." She previously worked for newspapers in Guam, Norfolk, Jacksonville, Fla., and Athens, Ga.