A Special Breed of Warrior

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Epilogue - I Will Not Fail

Recovery from traumatic injury and the associated therapy can be hell. For months after his release from Landstuhl and his return to the Pittsburgh area, Todd Mitchell worked through the physical and mental anguish of adjustment. He was not alone. Lindsey and Caroline were there for him nearly every minute, as well as their extended families. Their presence and support gave him purpose.

Then, there was his special helper. Beside him always, working as a team, was an undersized, banged up, Belgian Malinois-German Shepherd mix with a silly name and a missing ear tip. They received their prosthetics at the same time. Todd’s was the latest innovation in titanium and other alloys that allowed flexibility at the joints. Zip’s were equally impressive. His prosthetic “legs” and “paws” started just below the elbow joint and were essentially two flexible polymer, diamond-shaped appendages. Where the top leg diamonds met each bottom paw diamond, there was a pivot that acted like Zip’s old wrist joint. What took Todd months to get used to, Zip mastered in a matter of weeks. With time, the two would be on their runs again and Zip would catch his Frisbee—albeit at a much slower pace.

Todd eventually returned to school, earning his law degree from Duquense University, and went into business with his father. He would specialize in veteran’s affairs, and he and Zip took an active role with the U.S. War Dogs Association and in the Pets for Vets program. Caroline adopted Zip as her own and would welcome him home each day with a huge hug around his neck and joyful screams of “Zippy!” The Mitchell family would grow as they welcomed a second daughter, Abigail. They would call her Abby.

Scott Penman was a determined man. For the rest of his tour of duty, he made it his mission to ensure Abdul Ashkilani’s family was looked after. He blamed himself for Abby’s death and was ardent in his dedication to the memory of his friend. He relentlessly petitioned the State Department to include the Ashkilanis in the amnesty program, and even successfully appealed to the limited sensitivities of Jennifer Kennedy. He contacted Todd, who remembered his conversation with Abby at the COP and appealed to his father for legal advice. Bob Mitchell assisted in navigating State Department bureaucracy. Penman arranged for the assistance of Commander Heard and Lieutenant Kelly to have the women protected and flown to Penman’s hometown of Grand Rapids, Michigan, where his family welcomed them as their own.

The Ashkilani daughters adjusted and thrived. Zohal finished school and was eventually accepted to the University of Michigan Medical School. Zahmina Rai would continue to develop her athletic prowess and play soccer at Grand Valley State University. Shaima found channels for her outspoken ways and would go on to fight for women and human rights through Amnesty International and the International League of Human Rights. She would eventually attend law school. Bibi Kur kept a positive face on for her girls. But she would forever struggle with the mental torment of a being a war widow; never really knowing whether the pain and the ultimate sacrifices of her family and husband ever actually solved anything at all.

Petty Officer Todd Mitchell was awarded a Purple Heart adorned with a gold star for wounds sustained in combat, and the Navy Cross for valor in the face of the enemy. However, because military working dogs are not eligible for decorations, the Defense Department would make no official recognition of the contributions of the K9 Navy SEAL attached to the First Squad of the Second Platoon of SEAL Team 4. The team knew Zip deserved better.

The Military Working Dog Teams National Monument stands at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas. When Manny Blanco learned what had happened to Zip, he arranged for a proper ceremony to be held at the monument, where Zip would be awarded a completely unofficial commendation for his heroic actions and his own K9 version of the Navy Cross.

The ceremony was attended by Todd and his family, the men of the team, newly promoted Lieutenant Commander John Kelly, Commander Matthew Heard, Chloe Van Raalten, and some of Manny’s veteran military working dog handling colleagues. Zip had no idea what all the fuss was about but he took tremendous comfort in having nearly everyone he ever cared about in one place. He would stand at attention, ears up and forward, as a Marine veteran of the Vietnam conflict named Choatt draped the ribbon and medal over his head.

At the small house on the Little R Dairy Farm in the hills of Western Pennsylvania, Zip would spend the remainder of his days with those he loved and who loved him. Each night, when the girls were tucked into bed and Todd and Lindsey were settled down, he would perform his patrol of the grounds—walking the porch and perimeter of the house, stopping occasionally to assess the surrounding sounds and smells. When he was satisfied there were no threats about, the clicks of his carbon-fiber legs could be heard tapping on the wood planks as he headed back through the screen door he learned to open by himself. Finally, taking a position on his bed—strategically placed between Abby’s and Caroline’s rooms—Zip remained vigilant in the shadow of the hallway nightlight until he drifted off to sleep, resolutely adhering to the fundamental belief of every Navy SEAL.

I humbly serve as a guardian to my fellow Americans always ready to defend those who are unable to defend themselves. I do not advertise the nature of my work, nor seek recognition for my actions. I voluntarily accept the inherent hazards of my profession, placing the welfare and security of others before my own … I will not fail.

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