By Alun Thomas
Phoenix Recruiting Battalion
February 16, 2018
ANTHEM, Ariz. -- There isn't a day that goes by where Army recruiter Sgt. 1st Class Matthew Smeltz doesn't think of his late Army K-9 Aya.
For five years Smeltz, who works at the Anthem Recruiting Station, had Aya, a German shepherd, as his faithful companion after she was retired from the Army as a military working dog. Sadly, she died Jul. 15 at the age of 12.
Aya's memory will live on in the community, though, as she became the first K-9 to be recognized at the Anthem Veterans Memorial during a ceremony Feb. 1.
Prior to owning Aya, Smeltz was an engineer specializing as a K-9 mine detection handler where K-9s like Aya excelled.
"The dogs I trained were non-aggressive dogs. They couldn't be aggressive, because we were trying to find land mines," he said. "We train them specifically to find odors. So there's no bite training for our dogs. Literally they are a single-purpose dog."
Aya was a mine detection dog trained to find explosive materials so the engineers could create safe routes for people to travel.
"Aya did route-clearance operations in Afghanistan. She went out with dismounted units to sweep the roadways on their patrols," Smeltz said. "She did six years in the Army and had two deployments to Afghanistan."
Smeltz said he never had the opportunity to work with Aya on her deployments, being called to recruiting after three years in his chosen military occupational specialty.
"I never deployed as a K-9 handler. I had only been doing it for three years when I got called up to recruiting," he said.
Smeltz became Aya's owner in 2012 when his team leader was unable to take care of her.
"My team leader [Sgt. Zachery Lee] owned Aya. When she was retired, he was still living in the barracks and was in no position to take her," Smeltz said. "So he asked me to take care of her for a few days. That ended up turning into five years."
Smeltz brought Aya to Arizona, where she gained attention at the Anthem Veterans Memorial, after appearing there with Smeltz in 2016. Because of the bond Smeltz shared with Aya, he was invited to place a brick in her memory at the memorial.
"The first year I was here, I was approached to talk about the Global War on Terrorism at the memorial, so I brought Aya with me. That's how I got involved with it," Smeltz said. "The people who run the memorial bought a brick for myself and Aya. Anyone can have a brick there, but they thought it would be an honor for Aya to be the first dog to have one there."
It was a proud moment for Smeltz. Besides himself and Aya, bricks were also placed for his brother Zachery, also a veteran, and his former team leader, Lee.
The memories and times he spent with Aya will never be forgotten, Smeltz said, she was truly a once-in-a-lifetime dog.
"It was an amazing experience. She was the most obedient and loyal dog I've ever had," he smiled. "She was incredible, everyone loved her."