Restored cemetery honors memory of four-legged state troopers

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EASTON — Maryland State Police gathered with colleagues, supporters, family and friends to rededicate the state’s only K9 cemetery on Tuesday, Oct. 1, at the Easton Barrack.

More than 150 people, most of whom played a role in the restoration project, gathered at the barrack for the ceremony that memorialized the K9 troopers, honored the dogs who currently serve and celebrated the cemetery’s restoration.

The ceremony featured remarks by Lt. Robert Connolly who spearheaded the restoration, and Maryland State Police Alumni Association President Capt. Jack Howard; a blessing by the Rev. James Nash, pastor of Saints Peter & Paul parish; and bagpipe music by Tfc. Bud Donovan, a retired officer whose dog Sabo is buried in the restored cemetery.

Also attending were K9 handlers from Fort Meade, members of local law enforcement agencies, and relatives of state troopers whose K9 partners were also family pets.

Howard praised Connolly for his vision and dedication in seeing the two-year project through from start to finish.

“Lt. Rob asked us to help him (with the project) and we were happy to do it,” Howard said. Connolly had invited him to visit the site before the clean-up began.

“Rob had said it was a mess,” Howard said. “You could hardly call it a mess — it was a disaster.”

“Dogs have always been an important part of the MSP,” Howard said. The MSP K9 Dog Corps Program was established in 1961, “but now the unit is all over the state with multiple dogs and all kinds of dogs, who do so many different tasks today than what the shepherds did back then.”

The cemetery was established in 1968 by the late Tfc. Gerald Webb, who piloted the Maryland State Trooper K9 Dog Corps. The burial ground had been neglected for years when Lt. Robert Connolly was promoted to lieutenant and assigned as barrack commander in 2015. When he instituted a barrack clean-up project he realized a K9 cemetery existed on the property. It was literally a case of “out of sight, out of mind,” he said, and the conditions were “deplorable and offensive.”

“You can’t take care of your own like that,” Connolly said.

It was a personal mission for Connolly, as well. He had been a K9 handler for several years. His wife, Sgt. Melissa Connolly and her dog Akita are currently assigned to the unit.

Two years ago, Connolly began recruiting a team and raising funds to restore the cemetery. Along with MSPAA, the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 69 rallied to help.

The first part of the project was the task of reconstructing a roster of all the dogs buried in the cemetery, and the names of their handlers, but there was no documents on file and no map.

“Tree limbs, debris and overgrowth completely covered the site,” Connolly wrote in the program booklet. “The fifty-year-old brass nameplates were indiscernible and cinder-block headstones were broken.” Some nameplates were simply missing. After a year of research, the names of the 17 dogs buried in the original cemetery were identified.

In August 2017, 40 volunteers descended on the site of the old cemetery and in one day removed the brush, debris and branches. Retired troopers, Boy Scouts, Young Marines and residents of surrounding neighborhoods pitched in to help.

Today, engraved stones mark the 21 graves in the military-style cemetery shaded by old-growth trees. The red chip gravel stone symbolizes “the blood shed in service to the State,” Connolly said. A bronze German shepherd bearing the K9 Corps badge guards the entrance to the Rainbow Bridge over to the cemetery. A sign states simply, “Maryland State Police Canine Cemetery established 1968 — restored 2018.”

“The Rainbow Bridge, the poem, reminds us that these dogs are more than tools, they’re our partners,” Connolly said as his voice broke. “They’re our MSP family.”

“You know, these are troopers here — four-legged troopers, but they’re troopers,” Connolly said.

Retired Tfc. Steve Miller’s dog Dino II is buried in the cemetery. His son and wife accompanied him to the ceremony and placed the Maryland state flower and a dog biscuit on Dino’s grave.

“I cannot thank Lt. Rob Connolly enough for all of his efforts in gathering the pack together and making this a place of honor,” Miller said.