Marine Sgt. Ross Gundlach, of Madison, Wisc., gets a kiss from Casey, a four-year-old yellow lab he had worked with while deployed in Afghanistan, as the two are reunited during a surprise ceremony Friday at the Statehouse in Des Moines, Iowa. (Charlie Neibergall / AP)
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DES MOINES, IOWA — When Marine Sgt. Ross Gundlach served as a dog handler in Afghanistan, he told the yellow lab who was his constant companion that he'd look her up when he returned home.
"I promised her if we made it out of alive, I'd do whatever it took to find her," Gundlach said.
On Friday, he made good on that vow with help from some sentimental state officials in Iowa who know how to pull off a surprise.
Since leaving active duty to take classes at the University of Wisconsin this summer, Gundlach, of Madison, Wis., had been seeking to adopt 4-year-old Casey.
The 25-year-old learned Casey had finished her military service and had been sent to the Iowa State Fire Marshal's Office, where she was used to detect explosives.
Gundlach wrote to State Fire Marshal Director Ray Reynolds, explaining the connection he felt with the dog. He even has a tattoo on his right forearm depicting Casey with angel wings and a halo, sitting at the foot of a Marine.
"He's been putting a case together for the last two months, sending me pictures ... it just tugged on your heart," Reynolds said.
Reynolds decided to arrange a surprise. First, he got in touch with the Iowa Elk's Association, which agreed to donate $8,500 to buy another dog for the agency.
"We have a motto in our association that as long as there are veterans, the Elks will strive to help them," Iowa Elks Association president Tom Maher said.
Then, Reynolds came up with a ruse to get Gundlach to Des Moines, telling Gundlach he needed to come to the state Capitol to plead his case in front of a "bureaucratic oversight committee."
When Gundlach arrived with his parents, Reynolds told them the meeting had been delayed and invited them to join an Armed Services Day celebration in the rotunda. There, hundreds of law enforcement officers, military personnel and civilians were seated, keeping the secret — until they brought out Casey.
When Gundlach saw Casey, he put his head in his hands and cried. She licked his face, wagging her tail furiously.
"It was a total surprise," he said. "I owe her. I'll just try to give her the best life I can."
His father, Glen Gundlach, seemed just as surprised.
"It's unbelievable ... the state of Iowa, I love 'em," he said.
Gov. Terry Branstad officially retired Casey from active duty during Friday's ceremony, thanking the dog for a "job well done."
During the 150 missions they performed together, Gundlach said Casey never missed an explosive — she caught three before they could be detonated. He credits her for making it back home safely.
"I wouldn't be here ... any kids I ever had wouldn't exist if Casey hadn't been here," he said.