When retired Mammoth Lakes police officer Paul Dostie first picked up a wriggling black Labrador retriever puppy several years ago, he had no idea how much his life was about to change.
But this week, he’s in Washington, D.C. talking top names in the nation’s military and in Congress; he is working to bring attention to what has become a personal mission to help bring home America’s soldiers still “MIA,” or, missing in action.
It is a mission he came to after a series of events that began right here in Mammoth Lakes when Dostie began training his dog Buster as an avalanche rescue dog up on Mammoth Mountain Ski Area.
One thing led to another and Dostie grew fascinated with the world of forensic research. He trained Buster as a cadaver dog. Then, a homicide case in Mammoth Lakes (near Shady Rest) led to more contacts in the world of forensic research. It was then that he decided to train Buster to be something more than a simple cadaver dog.
“Decomposing bones give off a unique chemical signature that rises up through the soil, and Buster can detect it even after they have been buried for decades,” Dostie said. “Most cadaver dogs are only trained to detect soft tissue remains, but I have trained Buster to 'alert' to much older remains.” Dostie sees this as a very powerful tool in solving older crimes.
But it wasn’t until he got in touch with one man, Mark Noah, founder of a non-profit organization called HistoryFlight that is dedicated to finding the remains of soldiers still MIA, that the next step – and the reason he is in Washington this week – fell into place.
It all came about after Buster and Dostie took a trip last year to a famous WWII battlefield, the small island of Tarawa. There, a fateful battle between U.S. Marines and the Japanese defending the island’s critical airstrip ended up in outright slaughter – thousands of Marines dead and as many or more Japanese – approximately 6,000 deaths in 76 hours.
After watching Buster in action on Tarawa as he identified the long-buried human remains with perfect accuracy, Noah was more than a little impressed.
“Buster was able to cover as much ground in 25 minutes as we could cover with our ground-penetrating radar in a week,” he told the Times on Wednesday.
“It was very impressive.”
And not only was Buster fast, he was accurate.
“We sent him places where we knew there were remains and exactly where they were to test him first and he was right on.” Noah said.
Noah sees Buster's work as "compelling evidence" of the presence of hundreds of missing Marines on Tarawa, evidence that has been uncovered by HistoryFlight’s thousands of hours of historical research and radar ground searches.
Buster and Dostie’s work on Tarawa also recently caught the attention of Mono County’s Representative Buck McKeon. McKeon is now chair of the powerful Armed Services Committee, and has promised to push the issue of the missing soldiers hard.
Equally impressed is Clay Bonneyman Evans, the grandson of a highly decorated WWII veteran who was killed at Tarawa.
“Buster rocks,” he said. “I’m a big Buster fan. My grandfather is still there and … I’d be thrilled … if he came back home.”
Dostie, for one, is not going to give up on bringing the Marines home. He’s planning another trip to Tarawa as soon as possible. Judging from the reaction of the brass this week in Washington, he and Noah and all the people behind the HistoryFlight mission just might get some help this time.
“People are amazed at what Buster can do,” Dostie said to the Times from Washington, D.C, “I think we made a good impression. We will go back.”