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Police officer with K9

Remembering K9 Hyco: A Conversation with Brandon Surratt and Lee Vartanian

Brandon Surratt spent 18 years in law enforcement, most of which were spent as a K9 handler. This October marked eight years since his K9, Hyco, was killed in the line of duty. 

Our founder, Lee Vartanian, sat down with Brandon to remember that time in their lives. While Hyco’s death was a tragedy, his legacy deeply impacted Brandon and Lee. 

Brandon knew he couldn’t let his grief keep him from making a difference. He continued as a K9 handler for years until he and his new K9 were able to retire together. Simultaneously, Brandon and several others established the Hyco K9 Fund. This nonprofit helps to provide the best gear, training, and resources to other K9 handlers around the state of South Carolina who don’t have access to what they need.

Lee was working full-time as a LEO at the time of Hyco’s death. At that moment, the conviction behind Lee’s design ethos, even back when it was just a part-time endeavor in his basement, went from theoretical to factual. At Hyco’s funeral, the community surrounded Brandon in an outpouring of support and love.

Hyco’s sacrifice inspired Lee to launch Modern Icon as a full-time business on a mission to provide the best gear for those putting their lives on the line.

Read the full transcript of Brandon and Lee’s conversation on what Hyco’s legacy inspired

Lee: Hey, Brandon, what’s up?

Brandon: Hey, Lee!

Lee: How’s it going?

Brandon: Good, buddy, how are you?

Lee: Good, good. Thanks so much for joining us. Now, I’ve known you for years and you’re close enough that I consider you like family, but for those people who don’t know you or who you are or what you’ve done, why don’t you share some of your background and time as an LEO?

Brandon: Yeah! My name is Brandon Surratt. I did right at 18 years in law enforcement. Almost, I’d say, more than ¾ of my career was spent in K9. Just recently in May, I decided it was time to take a chance on faith and take a new adventure. I started my own business.

So, I’m still doing dog stuff, which is my passion and my heart. And dealing with the community, teaching them how to handle their dogs as far as that goes. It’s been a very smooth transition compared to going out on a manhunt for somebody who takes off from law enforcement.

Lee: Nice. Yeah, and what was it that got you into working with K9s in the first place?

A police officer kneeling next to a squad car with his K9
Brandon Surratt with K9 Hyco

Brandon: My first dog, it just happened. He came available; he had a handler prior to me. I talked to my wife, and said, “I think I want to try to work with K9s.” At first, she was pretty resistant to it. We had too much going on and owned a pet store at the time. She was like, “Ah, I don’t like this.”

A few weeks went by, and she finally gave in. So, I was one of a few who applied for Hyco, and fortunately, I got him. So, that’s how I ended up being a K9 handler. I went to a two-week school, and that was dangerous. They said, “Hey, here’s your dog. We’re going to send you to a two-week training school.”

Fortunately, I was trained by Charlie Kushner in my first class. He started the very first bomb dog in the United States, and I got to spend a lot of time with him. I actually still talk to him to this day. I wish I knew half of what he’s forgotten when it comes to dogs.

Lee: That’s awesome. So, do you remember how you found out about Modern Icon and the first time we ever met?

Brandon: Yeah! So, I actually came to your house to pick up a leash, and it was in the basement. You were like, “Hey! Come in here and take a look at my setup.” I walked in, and to be honest, you had two sewing machines down there at the time. I think you probably had some 1970’s shag carpet still down there in your house–

Lee: It’s all vintage.

Brandon: Just like the leashes and all the equipment y’all make. It turns out to be vintage because it’s stuff that doesn’t tear up. And, if it does, y’all honor it and say “Let me fix it or replace it or make it better than it was.” So, the equipment is bar-none better than anything out there.

Lee: Thank you, I appreciate that. So, your K9, Hyco, was a very special K9. Do you mind telling us a little bit about Hyco’s career and his time in service?

Brandon: Yeah, so the whole incident started because he had broken a tooth prior to that day, October 21, 2015. It was a Wednesday, and I was going to get his tooth capped – or measured – and looked at from where he’d broken it two weeks prior. On the way there, we were going to stop and get lunch before we went to Greenville to have it looked at. They BOLOd [Be On The Lookout] a carjacking that had just happened over in Townville. 

I was probably a good 10-12 miles from where the incident happened. The interstate was close to there, and there were hundreds of roads the person could have taken. We were a new unit; we just got three new dogs in the unit. And I was like, “You know, before I head to Greenville, I’m going to turn around, take a chance, and see if I can see this car.”

Heading back, they crossed the double bridges there on Highway 24, and the deputy said, “Hey, I think I’ve got ‘em coming across the bridge.” So, I slow-rolled and kinda waited on them until they pulled up. 

They saw me and pulled into the Ingles. I was like, ‘There’s no way this is a carjacking suspect, because who [in that situation] is going to pull over?’ So, they pulled into the parking lot, pulled through, and shot back onto Highway 24. So, I thought, ‘Well, maybe it is.’ 

So, we start chasing them; triple digits going down Highway 24. They went to turn onto New Hope Road, and when they made a left, the brakes got too hot, and they hit a culvert. Well, [because] it was given out as a carjacking suspect, I was like, “I’m going to try to get ‘em before anything else happens.” 

Three people jumped out of the car, which is what they BOLOd, three suspects, and they were all armed. They were running toward a Section 8 apartment complex. There were always kids out there, and then on the other side of the Section 8 complex was an elementary school. It was around lunchtime, so I knew there were going to be kids outside, and I knew I couldn’t let them get these guys to get to anybody else to hurt ‘em, based on the call that came out. 

I took the Fleeing Felon [Rule] into effect and tried to run them over before they hit the woodline because I didn’t want them to hurt anybody when it came to any kids or people on the other side. 

I couldn’t get to them, and as soon as they hit the woodline, I opened the door. I let Hyco out and sent him to apprehend one of them because that’s all he’s going to be able to take at one time. He caught the slowest one, which I would have caught him if I hadn’t had [Hyco].

As I start moving through the woods, I see that Hyco engaged the suspect on his arm. The suspect started shooting at me, and then I exchanged gunfire. The last round that the suspect fired was down into Hyco. So, I called Hyco back to me, and when Hyco got to me, he just hit the ground. It was like a sack of potatoes just dropped beside me, and I knew it was bad. 

So, I looked over at my cover and asked him to cover me. By covering, I wanted him to fire rounds so I could get out of the woods with [Hyco] and hopefully get him treated. It happened near the treatment center, and they had in-service at the time, so there were probably 30 to 40 deputies who arrived within five minutes of it happening. 

Another fellow ex-K9 handler — and one of the founders of the K9 unit in Anderson, SC — was one of the first guys on scene. I saw him pull up, and as soon as he did, I jumped in his car with Hyco in the back seat and tried to treat him as best I could.

Two sheriffs at a funeral for Hyco the K9
Brandon, his wife, and daughter at Hyco’s funeral

I was looking for an entry point or exit wound, but it was very minute blood. I couldn’t find any blood on him. We shot to the vet to try to give him any type of necessary treatment that we could. A short time after we got to the vet, they called it — that he had passed away. 

It was one of the roughest things I’ve ever been through personally, because of what he meant to me and my family. He had that switch; he could turn it on and off. I could take him inside. We’d get inside, he would lay down and we would hang out. He would lay at my feet when I cooked, when I showered, and when I laid down in my bed at night. It was bar-none the hardest thing we had ever gone through as a family.

Lee: I remember when he passed being there at the funeral. The way that the community responded in support was moving by itself. I mean, the amount of people that came out and departments that showed up. For me, was one of those moments where — before that, I had a sense of why I was doing what I was doing just because I worked as an LEO so I knew the risk involved.

Every time you put your uniform on, you’re putting your life on the line and you’re willing to sacrifice your life for others, for your fellows, for your handlers, for your K9s. You’re willing to go to bat and put your life on the line—

Brandon: Yeah!

Lee: Willing to put your life on the line at the drop of a hat, but it wasn’t until Hyco’s passing that it really kinda hit home for me why we were doing what we were doing. And why I felt like it was so important to make gear that was worthy of that level of sacrifice. I had gotten to know you over the years, and as tragic as it was for Hyco to pass, his passing meant that you and the other officers were able to go home. 

Brandon: Absolutely.

Lee: And people going home to their families was what Hyco’s sacrifice allowed. So, as tragic as it was, it was one of those things, too, where we’re mourning the loss of Hyco but at the same time realizing how close you guys came to not coming home. 

Brandon: Yeah.

Lee: That’s the kind of conviction that led to my “No B.S.” approach to making gear and why we’re not going to compromise — and why we haven’t. Seeing a leash that I made in my basement on those sewing machines you saw — [seeing that leash] on your boots at the funeral … that’s where it all came together and galvanized everything for me where I was not going to be the same after that. 

Brandon: Yeah, that leash that you saw was the one I picked up from you at your basement. And it was always on him. It stayed on him in the kennel. It meant the world to be able to have that piece of equipment that you made in your basement and to continue to work with him. There was no way that leash was going anywhere except that it was going to be there with him. It’s actually on the memorial wall that I have at my house now. It’s lying right beside his ashes in a box. 

Lee: I think that unless you’ve walked in our shoes as LEOs and been to the funerals of your partners or these K9s, or sat outside and pulled security so a widow and their kids could sleep, I don’t think you could have an understanding of why it is that you do what you do. You could have a theoretical idea, but until you’ve at least walked in our shoes, you really can’t understand what that brotherhood is like, what the connection is like, what that family is like, and being part of it shapes everything after.

Brandon: You’re 100% right. The outpouring from — I mean, I got phone calls and messages from all the way from California, to Maine, to Mexico, Florida, and everywhere in between. I still get stuff from people around the memorial date that he was killed. I still get phone calls; it still has an impact across the community to this day.

Lee: That’s one of the bigger things takeaway-wise locally that I’ve seen — and internationally, too. The amount of support that really does exist, that you don’t see every day, for LEOs specifically. You know, you get on the 24-hour news cycle and everything sounds negative, but when the rubber meets the road and it really does matter, everyone came out. People lined the streets. I remember [the funeral] was standing room only. That kind of thing really does mean a lot because it shows you that the community really is out there for us like we are out for the community. 

Brandon: Yeah, there are way more positives that come from the community than negatives. The only negative that comes from the community is the crap you see on the news, and I refuse to watch it. I refuse to watch the news because — if you want to get pissed off and have a bad day, turn the news on. 

Lee: Facts.

Brandon: You’ll realize all the negative the news pushes out. There’s not much positive the news pushes out, and, I mean, it’s depressing.

Lee: Yeah, I think that’s by design, unfortunately. But the community’s response [to Hyco’s sacrifice] was incredible. How did you decide to move on? After that, what was life like for you and what kind of next steps did you take after he passed?

A K9 sitting on the ground in a Modern Icon harness and leash
K9 Mack retired with Brandon at the end of 2023

Brandon: Well, my philosophy is that, when something negative happens, you can either hang onto it and stay sour or you can get back up on the horse and move forward. I’m the type that I’m not going to be down. I said, “Hey, I’m going to get back on the horse and get another dog.” And that’s exactly what I did. I got another dog and worked him for over seven years before we both retired at the same time. 

It’s not that — if you get a dog that passes away or gets killed in the line of duty, you’re not replacing the dog by getting another one, you’re moving forward.

What you can do is hang on to the legacy of the dog you had and never let it go. You can’t compare the two; you’ll never be able to compare the two. But the only way to move forward is to get back on the horse. If you stay off the horse, you’re going to regret it and think, “Why didn’t I do it?” 

So, if anyone sees this who has lost a dog or one got killed in the line of duty, and you’re still young in your career, the best thing you can do is to get back on it, get another dog, and move forward. Use what you learned, if it was a line-of-duty death, during those times to move forward and put it to good use. 

Hyco, a German Shepherd, with three small children
K9 Hyco with Brandon’s three children

Share your story. Tell people about it; how did you overcome it? Because the more you talk about it, the better it makes you feel and the easier it is to move forward. There are still times I still get upset; I don’t get pissed off anymore. I get upset thinking about him, but I’m thankful he was there, because if he hadn’t been, I would have caught the guy, and there’s a chance I wouldn’t have come home to my wife and three kids. Ultimately, that’s what he did. He saved me and other deputies that day so we could go home.

Lee: That’s right. What about the fund you named after him?

Brandon: So, the Hyco K9 Fund happened because a lady came forward because she wanted to buy another dog for the agency. She said, “I’ll pay anything that it costs and write a check so y’all can buy another one.” 

At the time, she went to the command staff and they said, “We can’t promise you where that money will go.” 

She said, “What do you mean?” 

They said, “We can’t guarantee that it’ll go toward buying another dog or not.”

She said, “Well, if it’s not going to buy another dog then I’m not going to give you the money and I’m not going to raise the money for it.” So, some people came together and started a 501(c)(3) called the Hyco K9 Fund. All the money that goes into that now, of course, turns around and helps supply the needs of agencies in South Carolina. 

Whether they need leashes, harnesses, Hot-N-Pops, any type of equipment, bite suits, or training. If their budget doesn’t cover that, they submit a request to the fund, and the fund allocates X amount of money to that sort of equipment or training. So, what we decided to do was to continue to try to provide the best needs necessary to agencies that don’t have the funds or run out of the funds to help the handlers be the best that they can be.

Lee: I can remember, even before the Hyco Fund existed, you personally coming out of pocket and buying other handlers gear after you got some of ours. Your generosity has always been one of those things that’s been an inspiration to me — along with your faith. I don’t know how to thank you for that. It showed me that there are people willing to help equip the people who need it the most. 

That’s kind of the whole point of what we do, I believe. The people who deserve it the most are usually the people who are thought of the last, and it’s a lot of time coming down to budget where people aren’t able to allocate money to these K9 units because the rest of the department needs it. 

It is groups like the Hyco Fund and people like yourself who are willing to literally go out of pocket if they had to to get people the gear that they need because they know it could potentially save somebody’s life and they’re making a difference. That has always been really inspirational to me, so I appreciate that.

Brandon: Thank you for the kind words. I stand by that you have to take care of people. You know, you’ve got to take care of people and put others in front of yourself. My philosophy is that it’s the Lord, my wife, my kids, and then anybody else that I can help. If I’ve got a dollar leftover and a homeless guy asks me, I’m not just going to give it to him. I offer up, “Let me go in the store and buy you something. You need socks; you need shoes. Something to eat.” 

You just have got to take care of people. You can never look down on somebody based on their circumstances because you never know if you’re going to be in that situation. So, you try to always treat people the same way you want to be treated in that exact same situation. So, taking care of others is what it’s about.

Lee: That’s awesome.

Brandon: You can’t live life alone. The Lord says you can’t carry your burdens by yourself, you’ve got to put them on others to help you carry them. If you’re not helping others carry [their burdens], then you suck.

Lee (laughing): That’s awesome. So true. So, how can people get involved with the Hyco Fund?

Brandon: So, since COVID hit, we took some time off from fundraising events. Fortunately, people continued to give, and we’re still able to help K9 handlers across the state. We have shirts, hats, challenge coins, and stickers [available for purchase]. You can go to HycoK9Fund.org to order any of those things or to donate to a 501(c)(3) if you need a tax write-off. If you have a lot of money and need to save on taxes, we can give you a letter. We are a 501(c)(3) here in South Carolina. Even if we don’t have funds, I’m going to do what I can do to help somebody who needs something when it comes to pretty much anything.

Lee: That’s awesome, man. Well, thank you so much for sharing your story with the Modern Icon family. I appreciate the time. Love you, man, and I’ll talk to you soon.

Brandon: Love you, buddy. And whoever’s watching this, if you’re in the K9 world, you will not find any better equipment than Modern Icon. I’ve even got collars for my pets from y’all. Any time I go out, it’s a Modern Icon leash; it’s not your Dollar General leash. I believe in y’all’s production of your equipment and appreciate everything y’all do for the K9 community. 

Lee: Thank you, man. I appreciate it.

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