CAMP PENDLETON, Calif. -- The 23-year-old sergeant’s voice breaks as he pauses to collect his thoughts on how to express his feelings for his fallen friends. The names of his comrades are engraved on his “KIA” Bracelets, which now sit on a table adorned with military memorabilia and memories of friends he’s served with.
“Every day you wake up is a blessing in itself,” said Sgt. Brian Riddle, a military working dog handler with Headquarters and Support Company, 1st Law Enforcement Battalion. “Every day I wake up is another day that they’re not going to, so I live my life as they would live theirs.”
Riddle, who served two combat deployments in Afghanistan, is currently recovering from injuries at the Hope and Care Center in Camp Pendleton, Calif. The two-time Purple Heart recipient was injured in both deployments.
He took a bullet to the chest, which deflected off of the protective plates in his flak jacket and ripped across his chin and neck on April 10, 2010. In a terrible, almost anniversary-style fashion, Riddle was hit two years later by a mortar round which severely damaged his right hip and caused shrapnel damage to his face on April 22, 2012.
Riddle was with his military working dog, Jony, an eight-year-old Belgian Malinois, and a specialized search and explosive detection dog, when he was hit with the mortar. When he regained consciousness after the impact, he checked Jony over to make sure he was OK before checking himself.
When Riddle was first assigned with Jony, he didn’t like him. He was shaggy and smelly, often called the "junkyard dog" by the other handlers. Although his outward appearances were rough, they gave way to a hard-working colleague and the two have since developed a great working relationship and friendship.
“After my deployment and everything we’ve been through … I’m adopting him at the beginning of the month,” he said with a shaky voice. “He’ll be sent home to Pennsylvania until I get home, where he’ll wait for me. Our relationship is bar-none, no other like it on this Earth.”
Lance Cpl. Anthony Liberatore, who looks after Jony while Riddle is away at therapy or civilian-transition classes, described Jony and Riddle as friends with an unbreakable bond.
“Jony and Riddle’s relationship is like a notch above the rest,” said Liberatore, a military working dog handler who has been in and out of Riddle’s unit for the past three years. “You can tell when those two are together, there’s a bond stronger than many of the other bonds you see out there. His dog has done a lot for him, kept him safe, and kept a lot of other people safe as well.”
Riddle’s father, Jeffrey, will be taking care of Jony until his son comes home.
“He’s like his brother,” said Jeffrey, who describes his son as an all-American kid. “It’s like he’s part of him. When it comes to his relationship with Jony, he’s like a family member to Brian.”
Riddle, an outdoorsman from Harrisburg, Pa., has been through more in one enlistment then most people go through in their entire life, according to his good friend and peer, Liberatore.
“He’s been through a lot, but he’s still a driven, confident individual that makes him an asset to his team,” said Liberatore, who goes fishing with Riddle whenever he get’s the opportunity. “A lot of Marines talk the talk, but don’t walk the walk. He’s one of them that does both.”
Riddle, a self-designated class clown, has carried a joker card with him since his freshman year in hockey. He wore the card on his uniform in high school and on his first deployment as a good-luck charm. When his friend, Liberatore, was assigned to deploy with the Navy SEALS, Riddle traded his card for Liberatore’s crucifix for good luck and to keep each other safe on their deployments. The two Marines kept in touch throughout their time in different parts of Afghanistan.
“When I found out he got blown up, I was really worried for him,” Liberatore said. “When I knew he was OK, I was worried my necklace was spread all over the country,” he said, laughing. “I love working with him. We’ve been through so much together.”
Riddle’s Joker card, his KIA bracelets, promotion warrants, Purple Hearts, and the plate, which took the bullet, saving his life sit on his military table. The newest addition to the table is the Grateful Nation Distinguished Service Award from the Jewish Institute of National Security Administration, which he was awarded this year for going above and beyond in the call of duty for the war on terror.
“I could say to him that I’m proud a million times over and it would never be enough for what I feel inside and how proud I am of him,” said his father, Jeffrey. “He’s far exceeded anything I expected of him.”