15 August 2011
Zhary District, Kandahar Province, Afghanistan
Friday morning I was out for a run on base and must have seen five working dogs and their handlers. The two dogs you will see in these dispatch photos were part of a serious combat mission two weeks ago, but I did not see them Friday morning.
The military working dogs in the U.S. armed services are about the happiest dogs anywhere on the planet. They are loved and coddled by Soldiers far from their families. It is fair to say that military dogs are treated better than helicopter pilots, and possibly as well as jet pilots (though not Marine jet pilots, who sometimes are treated like dogs).
The bond between a dog and a Soldier/handler is incredibly tight. There is the story of the British dog Theo—an English Springer Spaniel, a breed famous for its “Velcro” attachment to owners—whose handler was killed in a fight this year. According to one article:
THEY were best friends forever - Lance Corporal Liam Tasker and his beloved sniffer dog Theo.
Liam, of the Royal Veterinary Corps, was just 26 years old when he was killed while on patrol with Theo in Afghanistan's Helmand province.
The 22-month-old springer spaniel later suffered a seizure at Camp Bastion and also died. Some said he died of a broken heart.
The brave pair were inseparable in both life and death, with devoted Theo's ashes returning to Britain on the same flight as his master.”
There was the Australian Special Forces dog, Sabi, who went MIA during a firefight in which nine Aussies were wounded, including her handler. The Australians searched for Sabi for months, but never found a trace of her in the surrounding wilderness. Fast forward more than a year after the firefight: an American Soldier in a remote outpost saw Sabi wandering the landscape. He called out and she immediately responded. The Soldiers took her back to the Aussies where, with tail-wagging, she received a hero’s welcome. (I bet Sabi has some stories to tell, if she could only speak: “There I was, sneaking up on this chicken in a farmyard, when all of a sudden. . . .”)
A story about Sabi.
Remco, an American fighting dog, was posthumously awarded a Silver Star for attacking enemy during a firefight in Afghanistan. He charged an insurgent fighting position and lost his life. Less known, but equally heroic, was the Delta Force dog that charged up the stairs in Mosul the day Delta killed Uday and Qusay Hussein, the evil sons of Saddam. Reports are scant about that operation, but I was told by a Delta operator who was there that the dog was killed while attacking through automatic fire.
And then there was the Navy SEAL dog taken into Pakistan to confront Osama bin Laden. That dog must have had serious combat experience and done well to be chosen for that mission. (Puppies from that dog could fetch a pretty penny.)
Personally, I have never known life without dogs, so canine behavior is as familiar to me as people behavior, which gives me vague authority to conclude that the canine forces on the ground here in Afghanistan are probably the happiest—and most appreciated—dogs you’ve ever seen.
Military dogs make you smile because they seem to know they’ve won the dog life lottery. They’ve got everything a dog could want, including someone to play with every day, plenty of chow, exercise, fun things to do, other dogs to play with, and a great dental plan. Nobody ever beats them or ties them to trees. They get constant training—and tons of action—and they are allowed to engage their feral side by practicing attacking people or really attacking people. Often they get to play “hide and seek,” and then get to attack the person they find. Their reward for ripping off someone’s arm is a big hug.
These pups get to travel the world and smell new things, and never have to worry about heartworms, being alone all day when Mom and Dad go to work and the kids go to school, or about being hunted by a bigger dog or a tiger. Their handler has an M4 rifle and will enthusiastically shoot any threat to his buddy.
That’s got to be dog heaven (not to mention a better life than many people have), and it explains their constant “doggie” smiles.
On a recent mission, there were two dogs crammed in with us on the crowded helicopters. Over the next couple days there would be many firefights, countless explosions, and helicopters buzzing very low. It was hot. Barnyard animals were everywhere. There were Afghan dogs about, which are twice as big. But that didn’t matter, because the U.S. military dogs have human bodyguards. Prize fighters don’t fight street thugs.
During this mission, SGT Dog took point. (I don’t know Dog’s name, so I just call him SGT Dog.) It’s great to have the olfactory talents out in front of Soldiers on foot, but I am still cautious of trusting their ability to find every bomb. Like people, they aren’t perfect even with the best of training. I know of two cases where the military dogs missed bombs, one of which I personally witnessed. That day was very hot, at Sangin, in Helmand. The dog was tired, and sometimes in dry heat the scent doesn’t hang well to the ground. A British Soldier spotted the bomb that the dog missed. This link leads to the tired puppy who missed the pressure plate bomb: Bad Medicine on Pharmacy Road.
Enter the chickens. The chickens in the photograph above are the same type in each compound we visited. They are loud, fast, assertive, and even aggressive. One Soldier said he awoke with a rooster on his chest, with the rooster staring right in his face.
The Soldiers have started calling them “Veloci-chickens” because they seem like twins of those Velociraptors in Jurassic Park. Interestingly, the Velociraptors are from Central Asia. (Hmmm…)
In one compound, a Veloci-rooster appeared from nowhere. He walked into the courtyard into the middle of some Soldiers, and POPPED his feathers. It was loud, as if someone had taken a dirty vacuum cleaner bag and popped it between both hands. So when the Veloci-rooster, whose base color was apparently white, POPPED his feathers, a small dark cloud hung in the hot air. The dust POP left a black stain on the ground the size of an iron skillet. The Veloci-rooster then strutted by the speechless Soldiers, completely ignored them, and nonchalantly disappeared. The 4-4 Soldiers were stunned and amazed by this audacious rooster. They turned to each other and said things like, “Did you see what he just did?!?” “That chicken [it was a rooster] exploded and left that stain on the ground!” None of them had ever seen anything like it. And yes, that Veloci-rooster really left a spot on the ground the size of a black pancake.
Rooster versus dog
And so there we were. Other 4-4Cav elements on the same mission were all around us in different compounds or doing different but closely related mission. They had engaged in maybe twenty firefights already, either before we got there, or just after we left. And although the fighting came close at times, somehow our guys never fired a shot. Every element was caught in the thunderstorm – they were creating more thunderstorm than were the Taliban -- and we were walking through raindrops listening to gunfire and explosions, watching helicopters dive and shoot guns or missiles, and hearing occassional stray bullets come our way.
We came to another compound occupied by some of our guys from 4-4Cav. As we walked in , Soldiers were redistributing ammunition after the latest firefight (we missed it) and taking inventory while the helicopters buzzed low.
Suddenly, a Veloci-rooster spontaneously went crazy in the courtyard, popping and screeching. Some of our Soldiers—who only minutes before had been fighting Taliban—jumped clear. The rooster headed straight at the military dog who was sitting on his belly and looking calmly up at his master. The master readied his rifle, and shouted something like, “Get that chicken [it was a rooster] away from my dog I’ll shoot that damn thing if it touches my dog get outta here chicken!” He was hollering without pause, without a period or even a comma.
The dog, however, remained cool. He glanced at the Veloci-rooster, and I’m convinced he only did that because his master with the rifle was preparing to act like Kevin Costner in The Bodyguard racing to save Whitney Houston, who, in this case was a combat dog. Unperturbed, Dog just tilted an ear at the rooster, watched it strut by, though I saw his left paw move an inch in the direction of the rooster. Dog must have been thinking something like, “Should I eat it? Or just chase it?” But Dog maintained military discipline and just smiled at his master.
I said to the Soldier, “I don’t think that rooster can hurt your dog. Your dog would rip that thing apart for lunch.” The handler was hearing none of that. He said, “He was comin’ right at him. I’ll shoot that chicken if he tries to hurt my dog.” I asked, “Is he just a bomb dog?” He shook his head. “No he’s attack.” “He can kill a man,” I said, “that rooster is chicken noodle soup.” I laughed to myself, there is no way that Soldier was raised on a farm.
The other troops, as can be seen in the photo below, hardly even paid attention.
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