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A Second Shot

How a woman, a dog, and the game of golf helped give an Army veteran a new lease on life

By Jim Gorant

A Second Shot

By Jim Gorant

As Joe Steenbeke crushes a drive off the tee, Tess watches the ball soar down the fairway like a bird in flight. Sometimes, as the ball disappears in the distance, she’ll jump into the cart and take her spot in the passenger seat. Other times, she’ll trot after the ball, sniffing and winding her way along the course. On occasion, Steenbeke will look at her and say, “Where’d it go? Where’d it go?” At those times, Tess’ ears will perk, and she’ll leap to her feet and go charging across the grass.

Unfortunately for Tess, Steenbeke, an unofficial one handicapper and the golf coach at Ancilla College, hits the ball about 300 yards off the tee, making it hard for her to find. “Doesn’t matter if she finds it,” Steenbeke says. “She’s earned the right to do what she likes. Thanks to her, a lot of soldiers were able to make it back home safely, including me. Without Tess, I’d be a little red splat on the sand somewhere in Afghanistan.” 

Since Steenbeke, 28, received an honorable discharge from the army and returned to Culver, Indiana, in 2013, three things have allowed him to deal with bouts of PTSD and transition back to civilian life: getting married, playing golf, and reuniting with Tess. “I don’t want to say I gave up hope, but there were times when I truly thought I would never see her again.”

Man and dog first met in 2012. Steenbeke had always wanted to be a soldier, so he enlisted while still in high school and shipped out two weeks after graduation. After completing basic training, he spent seven months in Iraq before he and his outfit were sent to Fort Riley in Kansas. A year later, Steenbeke learned his unit would be redeployed to Afghanistan, and that the army was looking for K9 handlers for its Tactical Explosive Detection Dog (TEDD) program. Steenbeke, whose dad was a skilled trainer, applied for a spot.

He was accepted and reported to Denver, Indiana, where he connected with Tess, a brown-and-black Belgian Malinois. From that moment on, the pair spent almost every waking moment together, starting with a training program that included a month in Denver; a month in Arizona, to acclimate to the heat; and a month in Afghanistan, to acclimate to the altitude. The training complete, they were assigned to a district in Paktika Province, an area in southeast Afghanistan that saw a lot of activity.

Any unit in the district could request Tess’ services, and she and Steenbeke averaged about two assignments a week. Those could last anywhere from a day to overnight, or longer. One recurring march covered a 28-mile loop over two weeks, during which Steenbeke had to pack not only his own gear but food and a case of canned water for Tess. Combined with his body armor, he hauled 185 pounds through the desert. At night, Joe would roll out an extra blanket and Tess would plop down next to him, the two of them snuggling against the cool desert air.

One time a firefight broke out, and Steenbeke and Tess had to duck and cover. In his haste to avoid danger, Steenbeke fell and rolled down a steep embankment, injuring his back. He was medevaced out, Tess at his side. He spent a week in the hospital while an alternate handler helped take care of Tess, who waited close by. Once Joe was deemed ready for action, the pair returned to their district. 

“Being in a war zone is not a destination vacation,” Steenbeke says. “We saw mortars, rockets, gunfights—it’s super stressful. Everyone would walk behind us, and knowing that our friends could get hurt if we weren’t perfect made it even harder.” During nine months in the field, Joe and Tess uncovered numerous bombs and improvised explosive devices (IEDs) without any mishaps. “Tess made me look good,” Steenbeke says.

When their tour ended, the pair decompressed at a base in Maine, and then shipped back to Fort Riley. After the plane landed, an officer came on board and told the 20 or so handlers that they had 10 minutes to say goodbye to their dogs. “It was a roller coaster of emotions,” Steenbeke says. “I just tried to cram as many good memories as I could into that 10 minutes. Then I handed over the leash, and she was gone.”

Tess was off to begin training with a new handler, and Joe was left alone. He knew he wanted to adopt her, but he didn’t know if, when, or how it would be possible. While researching the topic, he met Stephanie O’Blenis through a friend, and by 2016 the couple were planning their wedding. Set for Swan Lake Resort in Plymouth, Indiana, the nuptials included a free round of golf as part of the wedding package.

Joe, who'd played casually since he was 15, took to the course with relatives and friends, and found an outlet. “It’s a relaxed, camaraderie-based sport,” Steenbeke says. “It’s not too exhausting, so you don’t have to be in perfect shape or anything, like other sports. You can just hang out and have fun and whack the snot out of the ball.”

Within a year of taking up the game, he was nearly a scratch golfer. Shortly thereafter, he applied for and got the job at Division II Ancilla. In his first year as coach, all his players, he says, improved their distance and accuracy, and two of them qualified for the NCAA championships.

Through the years, Joe’s hope of finding Tess began to fade, but Stephanie picked up the search. She contacted Betsy Hampton, a volunteer who runs Justice for TEDD Handlers on Facebook, a page that helps reunite soldiers and the dogs they served with. Stephanie also reached out to Rep. Jackie Walorski, who got answers and connected dots that Joe never could. 

They found her in 2016. Tess had graded out so well during her deployment with Joe that she’d been reassigned to the Secret Service and put on a detail that served the vice president. She was healthy and working. There was nothing Joe could do.

But Walorski stayed in touch with the base where Tess was stationed, and finally, in 2018, word came that Tess was set to retire. Joe had to apply for custody, as did two other of Tess’ previous handlers. After a phone interview, he was chosen to be her new owner.

In January 2019, Joe and Stephanie drove to Connecticut to reclaim Tess. It had been five years since Joe had said goodbye, and as they approached the facility, he grew nervous: What if she doesn’t recognize me? What if she doesn’t like me anymore? They waited outside until a handler appeared with Tess. She had a little white on her muzzle, but otherwise, she looked the same. As she sniffed her way across the parking lot, Joe’s heart pounded. Tess didn’t seem to recognize him. 

Then, when she was about 30 feet away, she paused, looked, and sniffed the air. Suddenly, she jolted forward, pulling her handler across the frozen ground. When she reached Joe, she jumped up on him. “She was giving me hugs and kisses, just like she used to,” Steenbeke says. “As hard as it was to say goodbye, that’s how good it felt to see her again. I was beside myself.”

Back home, Joe began to sleep better than he had since his return. He introduced Tess to golf, first with some chipping around the yard and then with full swings on the driving range. Before long, she would lie comfortably on the grass while Joe pounded balls. The next step was taking her onto the course. 

“Having her around makes everything better, and the golf course is no exception,” Steenbeke says. “Other people love seeing her, too. She makes everyone smile.”

Tess is particularly well behaved, responding perfectly to commands in four languages and obeying hand signals from 200 meters away. She knows not to walk on the greens, and she doesn’t get too exuberant when she meets other golfers.

At moments, Steenbeke has even considered using Tess to help recruit players, but for the most part he has kept her away from the team. “I decided,” he says, “it was more important to keep that special golf time just between us.” 

Photos: Courtesy Stephanie Steenbeke