Joe Steenbeke spent nearly a year in Afghanistan as a handler with the Tactical Explosive Detective Dog program, where he worked with Tess, a now-11-year-old Belgian Malinois, the South Bend Tribune reported.
Tess rarely left Steenbeke's side, but in February 2013, when his tour ended, the two had only minutes to say goodbye to each other.
The veteran said he spent years trying to adopt his canine pal, who went on to serve in the Connecticut National Guard — until last week. After years of paperwork and assistance from various groups, including U.S. Rep. Jackie Walorski's office, Steenbeke was finally able to reunite with Tess on Saturday.
“It’s been six years since I’ve had her and honestly, looking at her right now, it feels like it’s been a lifetime, but it also feels like it was just yesterday that I said goodbye to her,” he told the news outlet. “I know that she’s going to be in a great home that loves her from now until forever. I’m just happy to have her back.”
Steenbeke said despite their time apart, Tess is still the same dog he remembers from years ago.
“She still likes chewing on my thumbs,” he said. “Just the way she cuddles and plays with her toys and everything like that. On the way over here she actually destroyed four tennis balls, so she still has that going for her.”
Steenbeke was told of the good news on Jan. 23 by Walorski, who called him and informed him that he could adopt Tess, whose ID number is tattooed on his arm.
Walorsky, R-Ind., tweeted on Monday that she "celebrated" with Steenbeke and Tess, after she received a letter last year from Steenbeke's wife asking for her help.
"I know that she's going to be in a great home that loves her from now until forever. I'm just happy to have her back," Steenbeke said.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.