The newest wooden dog sculpture in a travelling exhibition currently on display at the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force features the story of an Air Force German Shepherd named “Robson,” who served for six years as a patrol and explosive detection dog.
The exhibit, which is titled “Canine Warriors – Courage and Sacrifice, Always Beside You,” will be on display through Jan. 31 and was designed by Ohio master craftsman James Mellick to not only bring attention to the service and heroism of military working dogs but to be symbolic of the courageous sacrifices and wounds suffered during battle by their human companions and to raise awareness about their needs.
“Robson” or ‘Robbie” as he was more affectionately known by his handler, Tech. Sgt. David Simpson, deployed to Iraq for seven months in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation New Dawn. Together, they performed explosive detection and random anti-terrorism duties and protected the lives of coalition forces by locating weapons caches and improvised explosive device materials.
In addition, they patrolled Iraqi polling locations to ensure citizens had a safe place to vote. At their home station, Robbie protected Department of Defense assets and base personnel and provided explosive detection for visits by multiple distinguished visitors, including the president and vice president.
Unfortunately, while serving in Germany, Simpson contracted Lyme disease and suffered continually from joint and nerve pain, post-traumatic stress disorder and depression. In 2012, he received a medical retirement from the military but was forced to part ways with his beloved canine companion.
However, when Robbie retired from military service in 2014, Simpson flew to Germany to adopt him, and for the next three years Robbie served as Simpson’s service dog, beloved family member and devoted partner.
Simpson and Robbie were inseparable – wherever one went so did the other – and they always seemed to know what the other was thinking, said David’s wife, Erin.
“They were always together – Robbie was just so calm and loving, but still a powerful presence – like an extension of David,” Erin said. “He was a good example of what they called a ‘switch dog’ where he could be completely playful like a family pet, and then David could just say one thing, make a body movement or just tense-up and Robbie would immediately turn into an attack dog.”
According to Mellick, Simpson and Robbie both had PTSD – their bond was to that extent, and they needed each other in retirement. Sadly in 2017, Simpson took his own life after becoming overwhelmed by paranoia exacerbated by PTSD and severe pain from Lyme disease. A year and a half later in 2019, the Simpson family was dealt another blow when Robbie had to be put down after suffering from advanced hip dysplasia.
Mellick, who had become aware of Simpson’s story on social media, came up with the idea to honor Simpson and Robbie but was kind of reluctant to do so at first.
“I sat on the idea for over a year because in most of these situations it is a long process to gain the confidence of families and explain to them what my mission and art is all about,” said Mellick. “I’m invading a very difficult part of their story; so my first contact is always with a friend or someone closely associated with the story.”
In this case, that person turned out to be Frank Yevchak Jr., a close friend of Simpson and his wife, Erin. Yevchak and Erin supplied Mellick with many images that were used to develop the exhibit, which even includes a replica of Simpson’s battle jacket.
Armed with these images, Mellick began to carefully carve a sculpture of Robbie out of poplar wood.
“It is always more of challenge to carve a likeness in a hard material and it has to be chipped away slowly because if you make a mistake it is hard to put it back,” said Mellick. “The more fur and hair a dog has, the more time it takes to carve and the more surface there is to sand, and with Robbie being a black German Shepherd, I had to stain most of him with a black aniline dye and then spray-paint the parts of his muzzle that were white.”
After Mellick spending nearly 200 hours carving, sanding, staining and painting, Robbie was finally ready to make his debut as the exhibit opened to the public Nov. 8 at the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force.
Mellick’s sculpture titled, “Waiting to Go,” depicts Robbie looking up and off into the distance with a tear in his eye, waiting for Simpson, but there is no one on the other end of the leash.
“Robbie is focused on someone unseen; he is alert and ready to follow a ‘get up’ command,” said Mellick. “The tear represents sadness and loss with the breaking of the bond between the handler and military working dog.”
Recently, Simpson’s mother, Erin and their three children were able to visit the museum and see the exhibit for the first time and gave Mellick their seal of approval.
“It was like seeing Robbie again – that’s how he would lay with his feet just like that,” said Erin. “David would have thought this exhibit was awesome, and it would have been good healing for him.”
Although David and Robbie’s story is ultimately a sad one to tell, Erin said she is glad that it is being told, and wants others who might be struggling with thoughts of suicide to know that the long-term victims are the loved ones who remain and are left behind.
“I hope it helps a lot of people to see that you might escape your pain, but it is the beginning of pain and suffering for everyone you love – every person that you’ve touched your entire life,” said Erin.
Mellick said he hopes his sculpture of Robbie will bring a sense of comfort to the Simpson family and more overall awareness for everyone of what veterans and their families sometimes go through.
“I see my art as part of the healing process for people who are even thinking of suicide,” said Mellick. “They might see Robbie in this exhibit, read the story and realize the pain and the suffering that loved ones go through when they take their lives, and that’s reason enough to tell the story.”
Mellick also believes that this exhibit is not the end of David and Robbie’s story and envisions one more scene still left to come.
“Maybe the back side of the title ‘Waiting to Go’ also means ‘Waiting to be reunited once again,’” said Mellick.
This exhibit is brought in part by the generosity of the Air Force Museum Foundation Inc. (Federal endorsement is not implied.)
The National Museum of the U.S. Air Force, located at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, is the world’s largest military aviation museum. With free admission and parking, the museum features more than 360 aerospace vehicles and missiles and thousands of artifacts amid more than 19 acres of indoor exhibit space. Each year about one million visitors from around the world come to the museum. For more information, visit www.nationalmuseum.af.mil.
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