Until yesterday, I didn't realize how much I had come to expect death in this line of work. Which is funny, I guess, since I often work dogs that search only for dead people. Yesterday's search was for a live person. Without speaking it, I was anticipating that this missing person would be found dead. There were so many factors that would indicate that likely outcome. Elderly. Dense forest. Winter. A storm on its way. A night out lost despite the best efforts to make the find before that had to happen.
As I told my dog to go find, I steeled myself for what I considered the inevitable. It had been the outcome so many times before in circumstances nearly identical to this. The dog I worked is trained to find missing people alive or deceased because we don't know at the outset why the missing person never came home. While the hope is that they are found alive, I have been a part of so many carry outs of the deceased, I apparently accepted that as the norm.
The search area was steep, filled with hazards. We found two mines that made us particularly concerned, but I trusted my dog when she indicated no one had been there recently. I tripped over many a thing and more than once I had to free my dog from the trappings of various vines. I imagined an 80 year old trying to navigate through this. I shuddered and steeled myself once again for what we could find.
We completed our area, loaded up and headed back to base. Almost at the command post, the radio gave the teams still in the field a command. "Hold your positions." My search partner and I looked at each other and without saying a word, we knew what that was code for.
Our missing person had been found.
My search partner and I also knew the outcome.
Our missing person was deceased.
We were the first team to walk into base. My heart was heavy and my search partner was silent. The IC greeted us and thanked us profusely for taking our time to come out to help the search efforts. I quietly said I appreciated the opportunity to help.
"He's alive, you know."
Both my search partner's and my jaws hit the pavement with our surprise.
"Yep! He made his way to someone's house. He seems fine and he's being picked up now."
To say I was elated would be an understatement.
I don't know why, but I chose to stick around for his return. Perhaps I needed to see our missing person in the flesh to truly believe the news I had been given. I watched as the truck approached and stopped at the command post. I looked at him sitting in the passenger seat of the truck. It was real.
I began to walk to my truck. I turned around for one more look and from a distance, I watched as his wife approached the truck and opened the door. The look on her face went from brutally serious to incredible relief and she reached out and embraced him. I heard a sound and it took me a moment to realize it was coming from me. I was grateful for the distance between myself and all of them, because watching this reunion caused a body wrenching sob like I had never experienced before.
There were a plethora of searchers now coming in from the field and somehow I rapidly composed myself and sped over to my truck. The gut wrenching sob retook my body and I let it fully consume me for a bit of time.
It was then that I realized how definitively I had expected his death and how much I was incredibly grateful that he was alive.
Seeing that reunion gave me a much needed reminder of why I do what I do.