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Sniffing out explosives and protecting his team from harm was all in a day’s work for Bass, a recently retired military dog who is being honored with a first-of-its-kind medal.

On Thursday, Nov. 14, the nonprofit organization Angels Without Wings is hosting an event with the National Marine Corps League that will institute a new award — The Animals in War & Peace Medal of Bravery. This honor recognizes animals’ contributions to the military.

Rapid City native Staff Sergeant Alex Schnell, Bass’ handler, will accompany Bass to the award ceremony in Washington, D.C.

“Bass is the 'smartest dog I’ve had the chance to train',” Schnell said. “The relationship handlers build with their canine partners is pretty incredible. What we’re able to do with these dogs — you get to see how Bass has potentially saved the lives of 50 to 60 Marines he served with overseas. These dogs help bring home a lot of service members.”

Schnell’s career as a military dog handler started in 2013. Bass served at Marine Corps Forces, Special Operations Command and had completed one deployment by the time Schnell and Bass were paired up in December 2014. They served together on deployments to Iraq, Somalia and Afghanistan from 2016 to 2019.

Bass is a Belgian Malinois that served as a multi-purpose canine. A conventional military working dog is trained for one or two capabilities, such as narcotics detection. Multi-purpose dogs like Bass do more, Schnell said.

“What’s pretty unique is they’re trained for explosive detection, controlled aggression so they can bite (when necessary), and tracking. It’s all three in one dog,” Schnell said. “It’s a very rewarding job every day when you’re training a living, breathing animal to do these seemingly impossible tasks, and (you see) how good they are at their job. It was exceptionally rewarding to do with Bass."

“Overseas (for example), if we’re searching for an improvised explosive device and he finds one, then Bass could smell the individual who put that bomb in the ground and we would be able to track his path back to his village or house,” Schnell said.

Bass conducted more than 350 explosive detection searches for force protection of his Marine Special Operations Team. During their deployments, Bass also was used to conduct explosive sweeps for improvised explosive devices, or IEDs. He provided force protection at the camp where the Marines lived, and he led the assault force during dangerous building clears. Bass never had a Marine fatality during his watch, Schnell said.

Schnell said a particularly memorable mission with Bass occurred during their deployment in Afghanistan. “We relied on Bass to keep everyone on the team safe. He definitely had to search for a bunch of explosives and he led an assault on a couple of buildings to make sure it was safe for our forces to enter,” Schnell said.

Bass is bilingual, as well. He was born in the Netherlands, brought to the United States and trained for military service, Schnell said. Bass already had learned some basic obedience commands in Dutch, so Schnell continued training Bass in Dutch. 

In October, Bass retired from active duty, and Schnell transitioned from active duty in the Marine Corps to a new role at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas. Schnell will be a training supervisor for the Military Working Dog program, which is a civilian role for the Department of Defense. Schnell and his fiancé, Maddie Merriam, have adopted Bass.

“He just gets to be my pet now. It’s pretty cool,” Schnell said. “Bass is still very active, although he doesn’t go search for bombs or have to bite people anymore. As long he’s got his ball or toy, he’s very happy. He loves going out swimming and hiking. As long as he’s comfortable and has his toy with him, he’s always happy. We do our best to keep him nice and spoiled because he’s definitely earned it.”

"He unvoluntarily sacrificed a lot for his service to his country, and he's getting to enjoy his retirement. Many dogs sacrificed and contributed to the fight. I'm happy Bass gets to represent all those working dogs. Not all of them have come back alive," Schnell said.

Bass is part of the Schnells' legacy of military service and the second retired military dog in the family.

Alex, Sam and Eli Schnell are the sons of Bryan and Tanya Schnell of Rapid City. Alex Schnell’s grandfather, Hank Schnell, fought in Italy, D-Day and the Battle of the Bulge in World War II, and served in Korea. Bryan Schnell was a Marine. 

After graduating from Stevens High School, Schnell and his two brothers enlisted in the military. Alex and Sam served in the Marines. Eli was in the Air Force. Collectively, the three brothers were deployed 12 times between 2010 and 2019.

Sam was a military dog handler. For about six months, Sam and Alex were in the same platoon and were roommates in the same barracks. “Sam was my first working dog trainer,” Alex said.

Sam was the handler for Speedy, a military working dog Sam adopted after Speedy retired. For the past four years, Speedy has lived in Rapid City with Bryan and Tanya Schnell.

Bass is one of two living dogs who will receive The Animals in War & Peace Medal of Bravery; the other is Bucca, a New York City Fire Department canine. Additionally, six posthumous medals will be given to animals that served in World War I (Cher Ami, pigeon); World War II (Chips, Army dog and GI Joe, pigeon); the Korean War (Sgt. Reckless, horse); Vietnam (Stormy, dog), and the war in Afghanistan/Iraq (Lucca, dog).

The Animals in War & Peace Medal of Bravery award is inspired by the PDSA Dickin Medal, which was instituted in the United Kingdom during World War II to recognize the contributions of animals to the military. The Dickin Medal has been awarded 71 times plus one honorary medal. Its recipients include pigeons, horses, dogs and a ship’s cat.

This year, the United States Postal Service also is honoring the four breeds of dogs that serve in American armed forces — Belgian Malinois, German shepherd, Dutch shepherd and Labrador retriever — with a series of military working dog stamps.

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