K-9 handler makes new plan after joining Reserve

by Sandra Pishner
446th Airlift Wing Public Affairs

6/27/2014 - MCCHORD FIELD, Wash. -- Plans don't always work out and adjustments need to be made. But a sunny disposition and willingness to change course can still get you to your goal.

That's what Staff Sgt. Kathelene Mercado, 446th Security Forces Squadron, is banking on.

After six years on active duty, Mercado made the decision to leave the active Air Force in order to build on her career as a K-9 handler. Only problem is, there are few K-9 positions available in the civilian world, they are hard to come by, and joining the Air Force Reserve didn't solve the issue.

"In K-9 in the Air Force, the furthest you can make it is as a technical sergeant in a kennel master position," explains Mercado. "After that you go back straight back to law enforcement. It was a hard decision (leaving active duty), but because I like the Air Force so much, I decided to go Reserve. Even though they don't have K-9, I wanted to stay with the Air Force."

Arriving at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Washington at the end of May, Mercado participated in her first Reserve weekend, and will be knocking out her annual tour in July. After that, we won't see her for a while.

"A couple of weeks after we return from annual tour in Germany, I'll be heading out to Kuwait," said Mercado.

Not able to find a K-9 position in civilian employment, Mercado took a regular force protection job with a contractor.

"I'm hoping to eventually to get a K-9 position," she said. "But in the meantime, I'll be in Kuwait for about a year working entry control points and other force protection positions."

So, time for a new plan, which is really the old plan - become a teacher.

"My ultimate goal is to be a teacher. As soon as I complete my degree, I'll apply to the Troops to Teachers program," said Mercado. "My passion is education. When I made my decision to get out (of the active Air Force), I couldn't really jump to education, so I thought I would do K-9 until I had my teaching degree."

And while that plan fell through, Mercado adjusted her sights and expects to make significant progress on her degree while serving in Kuwait.

What she won't have in Kuwait is her K-9 Bartja. Bartja retired as Mercado left active duty and she was able to adopt her partner. The two had served in Kandahar for six months and appear in the recently published National Geographic's Dogs of War feature.

"It was hard leaving my dog, because I retired him out," said Mercado. "When I left Dyess (Air Force Base, Texas), he left with me. I have him with my brother right now while I go off to Kuwait."

While her plans have not always panned out, Mercado maintains a positive outlook and the resiliency the 446th SFS and the Air Force Reserve look for in its Airmen.