MUSKEGON, Mich. –– The evening sky was thick with dark gray clouds.
There were three volleys of rifle fire. Then silence. A bugler sounded the lonely notes to "Taps."
As friends and fellow patriots saluted, Jeff DeYoung carried his best friend Cena, a hardened Marine combat veteran like his owner, past the crowd of well-wishers as they boarded a decommissioned Navy ship in Muskegon, Michigan. It was there on Wednesday where the black lab, lame with bone cancer, was euthanized.
He was 10.
This raw, emotional moment captures the indelible bond that forms between American troops and the animals who accompany them into battle. Trained to detect roadside bombs and other improvised explosives, war dogs have become vital to the military's mission overseas, performing lifesaving duties under gravely dangerous conditions, and leaving lifelong impressions on the men and women with whom they serve.
DeYoung declined to comment, telling the The Washington Post on Thursday he needed time to grieve. In a Facebook post reflecting on their final night together, he called Cena "my brother" and said the dog "blessed my life with love and admiration, happiness and strength."
"I want to run away and not face what I must do," he wrote. "But he needs me to be strong and set him free. . . . Because of him I got to have a family. Because of him I was able to live. May God forgive me for what I do tomorrow. And may the Lord greet you with open arms and a nice ear scratch."
DeYoung and Cena served together in Afghanistan between 2009 and 2010, when tens of thousands of Marines flooded into volatile Helmand province as part of President's Barack Obama's surge against the Taliban. It would become one of the 16-year war's deadliest periods, as American forces and their Afghan counterparts fought for control of violent population centers and the surrounding farmlands.
During one three-week stretch, DeYoung's unit lost seven troops, according to MLive.com. Fellow Marines credited Cena with saving countless other lives, American and Afghan.
During their patrols, DeYoung would cradle Cena and carry him across canals, he told the website. He used his body to shield the dog during firefights. In turn, Cena would snuggle beside him at night, using his body heat to keep his battle buddy warm.
DeYoung took to calling the dog Chicken, a nickname assumed early on during their time together in Afghanistan when Cena learned to connect the scent of explosives to the sound of explosions. Rather than lay down as he was trained to do, Cena would race off in the opposite direction, DeYoung told MLive.com.
The pair parted ways in the war zone without an opportunity to say goodbye and would remain separated for four years, reuniting in 2014 when Cena, then age 6, was discharged from the military. They spent three years together as veterans, during a difficult stretch for DeYoung when he went through a divorce and struggled to find work.
"I feel as if I have lost the most humble and kind part of my soul," DeYoung said in a prepared statement. "Cena made me a better man and I owe him the world for it."
In mid-July, as Cena's condition worsened, fellow Marine Jacobie Baumann launched an online fundraiser hoping to help pay for a headstone and statue for Cena, and to seek a volunteer willing to give the dog a few final rides in an open-top jeep. More than 1,100 people responded, pledging nearly $45,000 in donations as of Thursday.
The messages left there by other veterans and dog lovers convey not only sympathy, but a sense of shared pain and fidelity.
"Rest easy, friend," one says. "Your tour is complete."