Traveling with dogs across countries and continents can be very complicated and difficult. No one ever expects that their dog will board a flight and not survive to see it land, though.
This July of 2022, three dogs died in a two-week span while traveling on flights organized by the United States Air Force’s Air Mobility Command (AMC). AMC has offered sincere apologies and promised to make changes in their transport processes, but the heartbroken families of these dogs want more.
Kolbie’s Tragic Story
Kolbie was a 10-year-old Pomeranian mix, beloved by a Marine Corps family. On July 1, 2022, he died of heat stroke on a Patriot Express flight across Japan.
Kolbie’s mom, Amber, has shared the horrifying story of her dog’s death in detail on Facebook (you can read the whole thing here if you can get through it.) Part of her post describes the last day the family saw their dog alive while they traveled through Japan with AMC.
During a layover in Yokota, Japan, Amber writes:
“We were told by the Air force personnel we could take him out and relieve him and then we could again before they would board him. He was in an open garage with only one single fan…it was 100°. We asked if we could take him in the station because it is air conditioned and they told us no that the animals were not allowed. We could relieve them at the pet relief station in the front of the building and give him food and water but they weren’t allowed in the building. Thinking they had the best interest and this was their job we trusted and listened.”
When their flight landed just over an hour later, however, the crew had some terrible news for Amber and her husband, Chris. Kolbie, who they had basically just seen, didn’t make it.
“Right there, right outside of our plane doors I dropped, sobbing and hardly able to breath[e]. How, how could anything happen to him!? He is my baby and best friend and I need him. I would have never traveled to another country without him. He is the reason I knew I’d be OK. He helped to calm me. He was my right hand, always by my side. Why!? Why would he be taken from me, why right now!? It wasn’t his time. What happened!?”
Changes Must Be Made
The Air Force’s investigation found no signs of negligence relating to Kolbie’s death. However, since that flight on July 1, two more pets have died on Patriot Express flights.
On July 14, 2022, AMC shared about another dog’s death on Facebook:
“As we investigate what happened, we can confirm the pet was inside an air conditioned terminal space for the entirety of the pet transport process except for a ten-minute period when the crates were loaded onto the aircraft. During this loading process, an aerial port Airman noticed the dog was not breathing and initiated emergency procedures to promptly unload the crate and notify the on-call veterinarian. The Air Mobility Squadron immediately notified and comforted the family, and assured that the pet’s remains would be delivered to them at their final destination.”
Leave No Paws Behind USA, a non-profit that helps military families with their pet transportation logistics expressed their outrage at the military’s handling of these dog deaths.
“Military families have to execute orders in a certain amount of time. During this time frame they have to pack a house, prepare children for new schools, sell a car or put it in storage and then get ready to live out of suitcases for weeks and even months in some cases. Pets aren’t on the militaries radar the way it should be. The family pet is PART of our military family. There needs to be accountability, the policy needs to change,” the organization wrote on Facebook.
In her Facebook post, Amber outright demanded change and accountability from the Air Force:
“Airforce Mobility Command in Yokata, Japan. I am calling you out to make a change. Take into account more than just a routine and schedule you try to keep. Kolbie was his name and you will remember his story. Every time an animal is off loaded there. Every time a family trusts you with their bonus member. Every time you go to load those furry family members onto a plane you will think of him, you will think of what you have done, and you will ensure it doesn’t happen again.”
AMC’s Response And Defense
Gen. Michael Minihan, commander of the Air Mobility Command unit, shared a statement to Twitter on Friday, July 15. In this statement, Minihan acknowledged the fatalities that have occurred on Patriot Express flights as “unacceptable.”
“As a pet owner with five overseas tours, I’m intimately aware of the risk, expense, and extreme concern when it comes to these important members of our families,” his letter begins.
Minihan’s letter goes on to say that the Air Force will incorporate suggested changes to prevent further tragedies.
“AMC is reviewing every aspect of Patriot Express pet travel, including equities beyond our responsibility, to further strengthen pet safety. We will hold ourselves accountable to a high standard and will positively influence every service agency involved in the pet movement enterprise,” the letter states.
According to Minihan’s statement, AMC has transported close to 46,000 pets for service members since 2017. In those five years, 16 dogs have died during the transport process, 14 of which were flat-faced, “brachycephalic” breeds like the dog that died July 14.
While the Air Force works to improve transportation processes, Minihan’s letter stresses the importance of considering breed and age-specific travel risks.
“It is imperative you understand that the process we are improving cannot completely mitigate risks associated with certain health, breed, and sedation challenges.”
However, Amber takes issue with that part of the statement since Kolbie was not a brachycephalic dog. She feels it takes some responsibility off AMC’s shoulders for what happened to her dog.
“I will not be silent. I will not let this go. You will make changes and adjustments to make sure you have done everything in your power to not let this happen again. He will not die for nothing and will not be a thing that is swept under the rug. He meant too much to me for that to happen.”
What Can Be Done Now?
Amber has proposed some necessary changes herself:
“This is what I am proposing with our Congressional Inquiry: A room be built or designated for families traveling with animals and also a pet relief station built at every single military installation that transports live cargo. I am asking this room be dedicated in Kolbie’s memory.”
Some of what she suggested is already being considered. As Minhan’s letter adds:
“We’ve made immediate improvements such as increasing owners’ access to pets during layovers, comfort breaks, allowing pets in climate-controlled terminals, and cooling the cargo holds between loading and unloading. We will implement further improvements as the review process matures.”
Ultimately, military families who rely on their dogs to support them just want these pups to be seen as important family members.
“We recognize pets are a deeply important part of many families’ lives, and we take seriously the responsibility of safely transporting them when they are entrusted to our care,” Minihan’s letter assures.