National MWD Handler Group visits Vance, thanks Defenders

VANCE AIR FORCE BASE, Okla. -- As seasoned steaks sizzled on the grill and military working dog handlers and their families enjoyed rare off-duty time together, Kevin Sonka thought that his son David would have loved to have been at Vance Air Force Base, Oct. 10.

"He would have been right here cooking with me," Sonka said as he slowly turned the choice-cut steaks. "He always loved this."

Sonka runs the Rocky Mountain Dawgs Project, a division of The Dawgs Project, a volunteer organization started by two Vietnam veteran MWD handlers. The duo felt that appreciation for today's MWD handlers and their families, as well as remembering fallen troops, was best delivered with a good steak and a handshake.

Starting in 2007, The Dawgs Project visited military kennels along the California coast and across the West. Sonka said a chance run-in between group volunteers and his Marine son inspired him to start his group, which is extending the project's reach to the East Coast.

"He appreciated Mr. John Hemp on the West Coast when he came out to (Marine Corps Station) 29 Palms," Sonka said. "Dave couldn't believe that someone would care enough to come out and feed them a steak dinner. He appreciated someone thinking of him.

"These guys aren't just guys with guns - they're human," Sonka said. "Their story needs to be shared."

Combined with the Northwest Dawgs Project, the three groups have visited more than 200 military kennels from Fort Lee, Virginia, to Luke Air Force Base, Arizona.

Staff Sgt. Scott Hunt, a Vance MWD handler, and his wife Cat brought their young family out to the kennels Oct. 10. He said the Dawgs Project mission and message isn't lost on him and his fellow handlers.

"We're pretty grateful," he said. "[Kevin] understands the brotherhood and sisterhood we build with one another when we're together 18 hours a day sometimes."

He also liked that the handlers' four-legged cohorts, past and present, are also remembered by the project.

"They are our partners," he said. "My wife referred to my first [military working] dog as my second wife. They're there to protect us and we're there to protect them. They do more work than I do."

After the grill had cooled and the potato salad disappeared, Vance handlers and their MWDs put on an impromptu show for their families, displaying the professionalism of their canine partners and the services they provide.

Marine Cpl. David Sonka and his MWD Flex weren't able to be at Vance Oct. 10. They were killed in Afghanistan in 2013, but their memories endured in every handler and MWD that afternoon -- immortalized in the Rocky Mountain Dawg Project's message of remembrance and recognition.

"I knew I wanted to do something to make sure that nobody forgets him," Sonka said. "Because that would have been the worst thing for me - to forget who my son is and what he did. It's a way for me to carry on his name and the names of all the other handlers who have fallen. This is my full-time job."

To learn more about the Rocky Mountain Dawgs Project, visit