The two didn’t hit it off immediately. “At first, he wouldn’t listen to me. He wouldn’t do anything I was saying. It was really frustrating,” Hatala told TODAY.com producer Laura Coffey. Their relationship changed in a hurry once they arrived in war-torn Afghanistan.
The two walked on long security patrols. Chaney would sniff out improvised explosive devices (IEDs) and Hatala would watch out for Taliban fighters. Hatala estimates that his Marine unit (including Chaney and members of the Afghan National Army) walked over 2,600 miles through bomb-infested countryside.
For two years, Hatala, Chaney, and the rest of the group would trek through the Helmand province until the black lab would wag his tail ferociously and lie down on a spot. That was his signal that he had found an IED.
Chaney always led the way so that the Marines knew they were safe. The dog happily did his life-saving work during the day and then cheered the men up at night with his unstoppable affection.
The Marine group did their work successfully day in and day out, but a handful of Marines and a dog can’t find every bomb planted by insurgents. After a late-night explosion woke the group, Hatala and Chaney searched the area, but due to some miscommunication, one area was missed.
Days later, two Marines tripped the bomb and it caused them devastating injuries. In the heat of the moment, a soldier accused Hatala and Chaney of negligence. Hatala couldn’t help but blame himself. He put it plainly: “I didn’t feel like I deserved to live.”
After finishing a tour in 2011, Hatala and Chaney finally returned to the U.S. After two years of protecting and caring for each other, they had a rushed goodbye as Chaney was put on a truck to work with a new handler.
Hatala quickly found that he couldn’t adjust to civilian life. He and his wife, Genna Schoneman, moved in with his parents while the young couple looked for jobs. Hatala began drinking heavily and starting fights. He was adrift and didn’t know what to do.
After living through some miserable times, Hatala decided to kill himself. He sent his wife away and barricaded himself in the house. Schoneman texted as many of Hatala’s Marine friends as possible so that they might intervene.
Fortunately, Mark Johnson, a fellow Marine and one of Hatala’s best friends, called him. Johnson was able to walk Hatala back just enough to keep him from killing himself. When Hatala hung up the phone and drove to get cigarettes, he was stopped by the police. They took him straight to a hospital where he was evaluated.
Hatala ended up being treated for alcohol abuse and post-traumatic stress disorder. When he got out, he was on slightly firmer footing. He decided that if he could find a way to adopt Chaney, things might improve. He started the long and cumbersome process of trying to adopt the Marine dog.
Hatala also started volunteering for Retrieving Freedom, a charity group that trains service dogs. Hatala’s job was to take the dogs out in public and get them used to life as a service animal. The work was therapeutic, and it allowed Hatala to interact positively with people again.
About two years after Hatala had put Chaney on a truck to South Carolina, he received word that he could officially adopt the dog. Hatala jumped in his car and headed to pick up the newly retired Chaney.
Reuniting with Chaney wasn’t a balm for all of the sadness in Hatala’s life. He and Schoneman decided to get a divorce, and Hatala moved to Michigan. Chaney put Hatala at ease and gave him a sense of purpose, though. He knew he owed it to the dog to take care of him.
Hatala enrolled in a firefighter academy and graduated as captain of the class. He continues to pursue paramedic and emergency medical training. Chaney is by his side whenever possible, and the two are once again looking to the future together.
Following Hatala’s story has made it clear that Chaney saved the Marine’s life not only by sniffing out bombs, but by giving him a sense of purpose. We’d be willing to bet that Hatala has had the same impact on Chaney, who now has a forever home far from any war zone.