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When Galax Police Sgt. Jim Spence retired from the department a couple of weeks ago to take a job in Afghanistan with a contracted canine service out of Florida, the hardest part was not only saying goodbye to his family, but turning over his four-legged companion of three years to Officer Jacob Vaughan.
Spence, 50, has worked at the police department for 25 years and has been a canine officer since 2002 when he took on first a black lab and then Dunja, a Belgian Malinois, in 2007.
“Dunja has been a part of the family,” said Spence. “She’s with us all the time, so it hurts for my wife and kids. But Dunja is right in her prime, so knowing she will continue on and be able to solve cases and be a part of the police department” puts him at ease.
Spence will first train in Texas for four weeks with his newly assigned canine, beginning this week, and then will head to Afghanistan.
He will use the canine for explosives detection to check everyone and everything that comes and goes from the military base in Kandahar. Spence contracted for the position for a year.
“I love my job here and love the guys I work with, but when the opportunity came up, I jumped at it with mixed emotions,” said Spence, who found out about the Florida contractor from a friend and canine officer in Montgomery County.
Spence decided to apply for the job and was given a call a few weeks ago about heading to Afghanistan. He was given Labor Day weekend to “cry and pray about it,” he said. “One of the hardest parts was breaking the news to [Galax Police Chief Rick Clark].”
But Spence feels he will be doing his patriotic part to protect this country, he said.
“My son, Steve, was deployed to Iraq, and I am so proud of him for his services to the country. I wanted to be a part of it. There will be dangers, but through training and God, I have faith.”
When Clark became chief of the department in 2002 and told officers to write down what they would like to see happen for the department, Spence noted on the survey that he was interested in becoming a canine officer.
“I enjoy working with canines, playing with them and training them.”
He began learning basic obedience for dogs when he was a teen and has raised several chocolate labs. “A dog just wants to make you happy no matter how bad the day is. He’s a man’s best friend.”
Clark sent Spence to Richmond to train as a canine officer — the first for the police department in a few years. Spence has since been able to help get drugs off the streets.
One of the biggest cases with the canine came last winter, when Dunja detected more than a pound of methamphetamine in Galax.
Spence grew up in Fries and started out in construction when he graduated from high school. He faced not getting enough work hours during winter. A friend on the police force encouraged Spence to apply for the job.
“He must have seen something in me,” said Spence. “From day one, when I was sworn in and put on that badge, I was hooked. Now, law enforcement is in my blood, and I have to do it.”
Spence said his wife Sherry and two daughters, 11-year-old Ariana and 19-year-old Danielle, have mixed emotions, “but are backing me on my choice to go to Afghanistan because it’s something they know I want to do.”
He will have 25 days of leave time, of which Ariana says “‘you better be home for Christmas.” He tells her that a year will go by quickly.
Spence said that despite facing the risks that come with going to war-torn Afghanistan, he’s looking forward to training with a new dog.
“I’m not sure what’s going to happen. Right now, I’m just flying by the seat of my pants.”