Wendy Upjohn, 55, Mount Colah, NSW
Throwing a green tennis ball in the air, I whacked it with my racket, sending it soaring. On cue, my labrador-newfoundland cross dogs, Sarbi and Rafi, sped off.'Wow,' army corporal Murray Young gasped. 'They're fast.'Ever since we'd first got the dogs we'd been amazed at their enthusiasm for playing fetch. My three kids, Gemma, Nic and Marcelo, had always wanted a pet, and when they were all old enough, we'd got Rafi. A few days later we'd gone back for Sarbi, as Rafi was pining and whimpering for the sister from whom he'd been parted.Both jet black with brown eyes, Sarbi stood out with a white streak on her chest.Rafi was very quiet, while Sarbi was outgoing and playful. When she cocked her head we knew it meant one thing - she wanted to play 'doggy tennis'. We'd launch the ball down to the end of our backyard and they'd race to fetch it. They always came back thrashing their tails with happiness.
But after three years of family bliss we had to move to Sydney as Nic, 11, was accepted into a specialist music school. Our excitement was tinged with sadness though, as Rafi and Sarbi couldn't join us. 'We can't find a place in the city that allows dogs,' I told the kids. Sarbi and Rafi were members of our family, and letting them go would be heartbreaking. The least we could do was find them a new owner who would love them as much as we did, so we placed an ad in our local paper. Then Corporal Young called. He worked for the Australian Army's Explosive Dog Detection Section and he was looking for animals with a nose for hunting to train to serve in the military.We just wanted Sarbi and Rafi to go to a loving home, and he told us they'd be well cared for. Now, we were enjoying a final game of tennis with our beloved dogs before saying our farewells. It was obvious Corporal Young loved them as much as we did - particularly Sarbi. Her energy and desire for adventure ignited a spark in his eyes. Our goodbye to our adored doggies was sudden, but I didn't want to prolong the agony for any of us. With heavy hearts we hugged Rafi and Sarbi goodbye. But before Corporal Young put them in his van there was time for a final family photo. It'd turn out to be a treasured memento.
It was especially hard for Nic, who adored Sarbi. As Corporal Young's vehicle disappeared in the distance, we stood there crying, wondering if we would ever see them again.The house felt so empty and our tennis balls started gathering cobwebs. I had to wonder if we'd made the right decision. Were Sarbi and Rafi really cut out for a military life? Before we left for the city, we went to visit Sarbi and Rafi at their training camp. There, our fears were put at ease. They had luxurious cushioned barracks to sleep in and were fed only the best cuts of meat. It was perfect. We moved to Sydney, but there was a gaping hole in our family. We tried to keep in touch with Corporal Young but military rules meant he wasn't allowed to say where Sarbi and Rafi were. It was hard not knowing, but it was a comfort to think that they were serving their country like so many human members of our brave defence force.
Four years passed, but Sarbi and Rafi were never far from our thoughts. Then one day at work a colleague came over to me clutching a newspaper clipping. 'Isn't this your dog?' she asked. Those deep brown eyes, that distinctive white streak - I knew it was Sarbi.The report was about an Australian special forces explosives detection dog who'd been missing for 14 months. I was stunned when I read that Sarbi had been deployed to Afghanistan with her handler, where they had been caught in an ambush. A rocket had exploded and Sarbi had disappeared. The army had searched the desert for her, fearing she was dead. It was only by chance that an American solider found her with an Afghan man and reunited her with her troops. The story made headlines around the world. My heart raced with fear. I'd had no idea Sarbi had gone to fight with our troops in Afghanistan. Thank god she was still alive.
I texted the kids and they were delighted to hear she was safe. That night we huddled around the TV to watch Sarbi on the news. She looked just like she had when we'd last seen her, only a lot slimmer now. It was a delight to see her reunited with her army comrades after everything she'd been through.We were all so happy to see her - even if it was just on TV. We flinched when we heard what she'd endured - trekking through the scorching desert, her paws burning, hunting for explosive devices. Her survival was nothing short of a miracle.
Sarbi was hailed a hero for her bravery and courage. Our family, along with the whole nation, was so proud. And of course, we were desperate to see her again. While she was no longer ours, we still loved her as if she was our own.Thankfully, the explosives unit assured us we could visit once she was home. This news got the whole family buzzing and made us think of Rafi, who'd also served in Afghanistan. Sadly he'd passed away after being bitten by a venomous snake, but Sarbi's miraculous survival helped ease our pain. It's been 18 months since Sarbi was saved and she's now back in Australia. She was awarded an RSPCA Purple Cross. It's a very prestigious medal awarded to animals who have shown outstanding service to humans. And her amazing life is also the subject of a new book. Sarbi is now back at work helping train new dog handlers at Holsworthy, NSW, and she'll be retired over Christmas and live with her handler and his fiancée. Her handler keeps in touch with us and we've agreed to meet very soon. Our family can't wait to be reunited with our special Sarbi. She's our very own war hero and we're so proud of her.