Over decades of reporting, my toolbox has evolved: from a pen and notebook to a smartphone, and for the last year, a 75-pound English Labrador retriever named Bunce.
He’s named for Marine Cpl. Justin Bunce, severely wounded while on patrol in Iraq. I’m raising this happy, energetic yellow Lab to become a service dog, who will some day help a veteran with post-traumatic stress or physical disabilities.
The Maryland-based Warrior Canine Connection relies on volunteers like me to train and socialize puppies their first two years. Part of that instruction is taking Bunce to work with me each day, on every assignment.
He’s joined me at the White House, the Pentagon, on Capitol Hill and at numerous crime scenes, where even hardened detectives paused to greet him. What I never anticipated was that Bunce would be influential in countless news stories, and the key to breaking some big ones.
In April, Bunce helped me confirm a critical tip in a case that captivated the Washington area for weeks. A young, beautiful firefighter had disappeared in Shenandoah National Park. Her car was discovered in a dirt parking lot along the rugged Eastern border.
The closest town is Etlan, Virginia, so remote, there’s no cell service. In small towns, people tend to be suspicious of the media. But with Bunce at my side, they let down their guard and open up. It wasn’t long before we received a critical tip: “There was a note in the car. A suicide note,” one of the locals told me, as she patted Bunce. “They’re looking for a body.”
We drove to that desolate parking lot, where a Virginia state trooper stood guard, along with some national park rangers and a few volunteers. One was a Vietnam War veteran and a Marine, who had grown up with a yellow Lab “just like Bunce.” He was delighted to learn Bunce was from the “Semper Fi” litter. That’s the Marine Corps motto, meaning “always faithful.”
We talked about Bunce’s mission to serve veterans with visible and invisible injuries. He said, “I wish these dogs were around when I came home.”
The rest of the media was at the command post, on the other side of the mountain, more than an hour’s drive away. Suddenly, our location became a hub of activity. Two-way radios crackled. A helicopter hovered overhead. The state trooper rolled out yellow crime scene tape. My colleague and I were asked to clear the area.
Bunce and I approached the Marine Corps veteran.
“I guess they found a body,” I said.
I’m sorry I can’t tell you anything,” he replied. His eyes locked onto mine. “You know, I’ve dealt with a lot of DEATH.”
I nodded and mouthed the words “thank you.”
He winked and whispered, “Semper Fi.”