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ROMULUS, Mich. (Detroit Free Press) -- After waiting four years to see the black labrador retriever that kept him safe from explosives in Afghanistan, Jeff DeYoung Jr. knelt down and nuzzled his face against the dog's soft fur.

"Because of you, I got to have them," he whispered of his young daughters who scampered nearby, and the dog licked his face.

Cena N641, a retired war dog, had arrived at Detroit Metro Airport on a connecting flight from Baltimore shortly before 10 a.m. today in a bid to ease his former handler's anguished concern about his fate and to provide the canine combat veteran a comfortable retirement. DeYoung, a Grand Rapids native who lives with his family in Muskegon, served with the now 7-year-old lab in Afghanistan, and DeYoung's struggles with post-traumatic stress disorder were heightened by worries over his life-saving companion.

Cena sniffs for explosives, and as his handler, Cpl. DeYoung, a Marine veteran, was responsible for the dog's safety during their deployment together. They met at training in Smithfield, Va., in July 2009 and shipped out in October of that year.

They last saw each other on April 25, 2010 getting off a plane in North Carolina.

"We never got to say goodbye. They thought it would be easier. I didn't agree," said DeYoung, 23.

Cena, who is now challenged by a hip injury, trained to work with a new handler and was redeployed. DeYoung has been taking criminal justice classes at Muskegon Community College.

Cena's bomb-sniffing saved DeYoung and his fellow Marines "probably more times than I can count." DeYoung's nickname for Cena was chicken, a reference to the way he would veer sharply away from an explosive once he had detected it. Cena had learned caution from experience after seeing an Afghan soldier step on a bomb that detonated when he struck out ahead of his group.

DeYoung said the stress during missions was constant.

"The stress is through the roof … you have to put a lot of trust in (Cena)," DeYoung said.

The idea for reconnecting with Cena came from prompting by DeYoung's wife, Lindsay DeYoung, 25. In April, DeYoung saw and responded to a months-old online posting from a woman working in the military office that tries to reunite war dogs with their handlers and the reunion took shape. DeYoung was "1,000%" committed to the idea of bringing Cena home. The main adjustment DeYoung thought might be tight quarters on the queen-sized bed DeYoung and his wife share with their other dog, Lucie, a golden retriever. It would be a return to form for the pair, who slept together while in Afghanistan.

Cena might even get to eat the remaining vegetable omelet MREs (Meals Ready to Eat) that DeYoung keeps at home. They were Cena's favorite food, a taste she picked up during an operation in Marjah, Afghanistan, in the spring of 2010.

"I ran out of kibble (and) he just couldn't get enough," DeYoung said.

Kristen Maurer, who escorted Cena on his trip to Detroit that had started in Jackson Springs, N.C., said this marks her third such reunion in a month. Maurer works with Mission K9 Rescue, a Houston-based group, which, along with the American Humane Association, assists in the reunions. The specific number of war, or improvised explosive device detection dogs, is hard to measure precisely, she said, because many, like Cena, work on a contract basis for the military.

As he and his family waited for Cena to arrive after their drive across the state from Muskegon this morning, DeYoung showed off Cena's old black collar, which he had kept, and his girls, Hayden, 3, and Marliegh, 2, ran around the "Welcome Home Cena" poster they had made with a little help from their mother.

As her father hugged his old friend, Hayden shouted, "Hi Cena."

Lindsay DeYoung has been eager for the reunion.

"I know when he got back, he had a lot of separation issues," she said of DeYoung. "I think it's going to be really good for him."

Contact Eric D. Lawrence: elawrence@freepress.com

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