After a Marine Corps family’s pet died from heatstroke while awaiting a military permanent-change-of-station flight, the Air Force said it would no longer let pets sit in hot holding areas while families wait in air-conditioned terminals.
Amber Panko, whose husband is a Marine gunnery sergeant, posted about the death of her dog, Kolbie, in a Facebook post on July 3. The Pankos, Amber wrote, were in the final stages of a PCS move to Okinawa, Japan, awaiting a Patriot Express flight, the shuttle service operated by the Air Force’s Air Mobility Command for military families and personnel between overseas bases.
The family was in the Yokota Air Base passenger terminal, awaiting a flight to Marine Corps Air Station Iwakuni, while the family dog, Kolbie, a 10-year-old Pomeranian, was kept in a nearby cargo garage.
“An hour he was sitting in an open garage in 100° weather before being boarded,” she said. According to the post, the Pankos asked to bring Kolbie into the air-conditioned terminal, but their request was denied. “We asked if we could take him in the station because it is air conditioned and they told us no that the animals were not allowed,” she wrote.
The family had seen Kolbie soon after landing at Yokota but did not see him again until after the flight to Iwakuni. Amber said Kolbie was in good spirits before ending up in the hot garage.
“He was perfect!” she wrote. “Wagging his tail and so excited to see us. It was 100° in Yokota when we landed. We were told by the Air Force personnel we could take him out and relieve him and then we could again before they would board him. He was in an open garage with only one single fan.”
A later necropsy, Panko wrote, found Kolbie died of heatstroke.
This week, AMC announced interim changes to its PCS pet travel policies.
“Effective immediately and for the remainder of the Summer PCS season, AMC terminals will allow pets into its climate controlled terminals if Yellow Flag conditions are triggered at 85 F,” the update reads. Other changes include the use of an air-conditioned cart to cool pets while they are loaded and unloaded.
An AMC spokesperson confirmed to Coffee or Die Magazine that another pet had died on an AMC flight in June, though no cause of death was announced.
“A pet did unfortunately pass recently during a June flight originating from Andersen AFB, Guam,” AMC Maj. Hope R. Cronin told Coffee or Die. “Air Mobility Command has moved 45,847 pets from 2017-present. During that time, there have been 15 pet deaths; 13 of the 15 pets who passed were pug breed dogs.”
In the Tuesday, July 12, Facebook post, AMC officials said that rumors circulating online that other dogs had died on the same flight as Kolbie were not correct.
“There have been conflicting reports on social media regarding the number of pets that passed away on the July 1 Patriot Express flight,” the Facebook post said. AMC officials, it said, “confirmed there were 11 dogs aboard the flight that departed Yokota Air Base on 1 July, including the one that died, Kolbie. The remaining 10 dogs arrived safely at their final destination.”
Liz Hensel, the CEO and founder of Leave No Paws Behind USA, a nonprofit organization that helps military families moving with their pets, commented on the AMC’s statements.
“I think they’re definitely going in the right direction,” she told Coffee or Die. “But then the question is, ‘Why wasn’t this happening before?’”
After Kolbie’s death, Hensel reached out to Amber Panko. The two women are now collaborating.
“We are trying to push for a congressional inquiry on this matter just to get more procedures in place, more quality assurance in place,” Hensel said.
According to Hensel, a lot of military families reach out to her organization to share their negative experiences about moving with their pets. “There’s tons of people, you know, telling us their stories of what they experienced, the lack of empathy from the personnel,” she said.
Hensel, a Marine Corps veteran and military spouse, founded her nonprofit organization in 2018 after experiencing how expensive and difficult transporting pets can be for military families.
“The Kolbie story is super tragic,” she said. “And I hate the amount of publicity that it’s getting because it’s such a tragedy. I hate that this has to happen for people to realize, ‘Oh, wow, military families are struggling this hard with their pets?’”