Retired Air Force Corporal Max Pelton was buried on a gentle slope in Methuen on Saturday as taps played and veterans saluted his service during the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.
But Pelton’s burial was no ordinary military funeral.
The German shepherd was the first war dog to be buried at Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals’ Hillside Acre Animal Cemetery at Nevins Farm since the 1950s. He served in the Air Force from 2003 to 2007.
“It was an emotional day,” Max’s owner Pam Pelton said by phone from her home in Northfield, N.H. “It was also a great day. I felt that Max deserved this military-type of honor for all his service.”
Hillside is the resting place for eight other military dogs, including Marine Corporal Derek Dunn, a doberman pinscher who served at Guadalcanal during World War II, and “Coasty,” a Coast Guard mascot. But those dogs are buried in various plots at the four-acre cemetery, the resting place for 18,000 animals.
Max is the first dog laid to rest as part of “Heroes at Hillside,” a new program to set aside a special burial area for military dogs. The cemetery offers free cremation and burial for retired military dogs. Colizzi Memorials of Methuen donates their headstones.
“We just thought it was a way for MSPCA to pay tribute to military dogs and what they do for this country,” said Dave Gordon, properties manager at Hillside.
Max, who was born in 2001, was trained as a sniffing dog. It is unclear if he deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan, said Pelton.
“Any time I asked a question about his service, the Air Force just said, ‘It’s classified,’ ” said Pelton, 69. “I did learn from other military personnel and [dog] handlers that he detected drugs.”
Max received an honorable discharge in 2007, after Air Force doctors determined he just did not have the fight in him anymore. “His medical records said, ‘Dog retired. Became too nice,’ ” Pelton recalled with a laugh.
Pelton adopted Max from the Military War Dog Agency at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio in 2007. She was then living in Texas. And she instantly bonded with the retired war dog with the thick black-and-tan coat.
“He was a great pal,” she said. “He was very protective, but in a subtle way.”
Two years ago, Max was diagnosed with a genetic digestive disorder, Pelton said. After surgery, he did not recover. On the recommendation of his veterinarian, Max was put to sleep on Memorial Day in 2012.
“His last gesture was to put his paw on my arm and lick my hand,” Pelton said, her voice cracking with emotion.
She had him cremated in Texas before returning to her native New Hampshire.
Pelton learned about Hillside Acre, and was relieved to find a resting place for her beloved wet-nosed warrior.
About 50 people turned out for his burial on a cool June morning. The Rev. Brian Cullinane, a Fransican friar from St. Anthony Shrine & Ministry Center in Boston, offered prayers during the 20-minute service. Dunkin, a K9 dog with the Methuen Police Department, looked on with his handler, Officer Jeff Torrisi.
Max’s picture, and a medal awarded to him from the US War Dogs Association, were displayed. Joe Mullen, a Korean War Marine veteran and a retired manager at the cemetery, presented Pelton with an American flag. A few rain drops fell.
“I presented it with gratitude of the nation for the dog’s service,” Mullen, 79, said from his home in Newbury. “I was a little emotional. Dogs are a big part of the military, but people don’t realize it.”