Monthly Archives: April 2012

soldier dogs

Soldier Dog Comes Marching In

I’ve decided to branch out a bit with the blog and try something new. I wanted to interview an author whose work I respect and admire. But I didn’t want to stray too far from the core of my blog, which led me to New York Times Besting Selling author Maria Goodavage. Maria’s book Soldier Dogs is the Untold Story of America’s Canine Heroes. If you have checked out my Facebook page you may have seen some posts about Maria’s incredible work.

Maria is a former San Francisco Chronicle and USA Today reporter and currently the news editor at Say Media’s Dogster.com. She has been writing about dogs for years. After one conversation with her you will realize that she is an absolutely fabulous lady and a complete dog lover.

Maria grew up hearing stories from her father on how dogs provided comfort for the troops during World War II. When she was approached about this project she jumped at the opportunity to explore what, for most, is the unknown world of military working dogs.

Here is a link to an interview with Maria on the The Daily Show with Jon Stewart Show from March. Check out her energy and sincerity. When she talks about dogs her eyes light up!

I love the structure of Soldier Dogs. It consists of short chapters, making the book easy to put down and pick back up. In the book Maria combines a great balance of technical dog-speak and research with heartwarming and hard hitting topics that provide the reader a holistic view of our military dogs, their handlers and the impact they have on our troops.

If you are interested in military dogs or dogs in general I think this is a book you are going to want to read. Maria’s enthusiasm and love of dogs radiates throughout. It is evident as you read the book and see how she effectively interviews military dog insiders to give away facts, stories and methods never before revealed, like:

Why does the Navy have a 12-pound explosive sniffing dog?Military Working Dog Lars

How are these dogs procured?

What is it about a dog’s nose that makes them more effective in sniffing explosives than million-dollar pieces of equipment?

How are our dog teams trained?

What is a dog’s motivation to find explosives for our troops?

What happens to a dog when their service is completed?

These questions and so much more are answered in Maria’s comprehensive coverage of our furry, four-legged Warrior.

I’m not going to ask questions that others have asked. My questions are uniquely from a soldier’s perspective.

So Maria, what was the biggest misconception carried into your research that you found was untrue?

The biggest misconception I had was that the training must be pretty harsh to get these dogs to perform as incredibly as they do. After all, these are tough dogs with extremely demanding jobs. If Cesar Millan has to get harsh with the pet dogs he works with, the military dog handlers must have to really exercise force. Or so I thought.

But I was blown away by the extremely positive training I saw day in, day out, everywhere I went. (A lot of handlers and trainers weren’t aware there was a writer in their midst, so it wasn’t as if they were putting on a show.) Whenever their dog performed well, they’d reward the dog bigtime. After the dog did a great job, like sniffing out an explosives scent, the handler would whoop it up, praising the dog genuinely and like mad, and throw him his Kong. If a Kong wasn’t around, a tennis ball or even a glove would do. The rewarded dog was in heaven, with something to bite on in his mouth, and mega praise from his beloved handler. It doesn’t get any better than that when you’re a dog.

In detection work, not noticing a scent just meant no reward  – not punishment. There was no yelling, no dragging the dog over and shoving his nose in the odor. The patrol side was only slightly different. Praise and Kongs and bite sleeves flew all around, but if a dog didn’t listen to a command during bite work – for instance, if he didn’t stop when a trainer shouted “OUT!” he’d get a quick jerk on his choke chain, and he’d be walked back to start the exercise again. (There are times, of course, of severe and uncontrolled dog aggression when a handler has to be more forceful, but this is pretty rare, and it’s only to defuse a potentially dangerous situation.)

So these dogs become lifesaving heroes mostly through this positive training. It’s about the carrot, mot the stick, these days. It’s a joy to watch, and it’s working beautifully.

Troop carrying a military working dogCan you share something that got cut from your book you feel may be important to share with folks?

Fortunately no major parts of the book were cut. All the concepts I wanted to include made it. But we couldn’t fit in a few of the stories I loved that showed the dog/handler bond.  What’s great about this topic is that just about every story you hear from a handler is worthy of retelling in a book. The bond is so deep, the situations they’re in are so intense, and time after time I’ve been told there’s nothing else like the bond between a deployed dog and handler. I could fill multiple books with their stories.

What is your favorite part of the writing process and why?

I love the research, especially in a book like this where I am passionate about the topic. Getting to know the people, the dogs, the training methods, the stories – I could do that forever.

But you asked about my favorite part of the writing process, and I have to admit that my favorite part of writing is when it’s over, and behind me is a job well done. Don’t get me wrong. Sometimes I really love writing. There are many moments of exhilaration when I make a discovery of how to frame chapters or an idea or a story, or when I’m able to see how the book really is going to come together, or when I figure out just the right way to write something, and I get so caught up in it that nothing else exists.

But writing a solid research-driven book on a tight deadline is very hard work. On some days I’d write – or figure out how to do so – for 20 hours, barely sleep, get up, have some coffee and eggs and start again. Here’s the kicker, though. After it’s all over, and I’ve had a few weeks away from it, I always look forward to the next big project. There’s a strange amnesia that sets in, like that of a new mom who swears she’ll never have another baby again because of the pain of childbirth, then after a couple of years, wants nothing more than to have another baby. In my case, I’m already looking forward to the next book.

So, of course, it all comes down to is the dog. Can you tell us about one Military Working Dog that you just fell in love with during your research?

Military Working Dog RexThat’s a really tough call, Kevin, because there were so many military working dogs I fell in love with. It’s almost like having to choose your favorite child. A top contender is a dog named Rex. Rex was a huge German shepherd who had an even bigger stubborn streak early in his career. No one could work with him. You had to yell to get him to pay any attention.

An Army handler, Sgt. Amanda Ingraham, ended up paired with him, and was far from thrilled. But one day, in frustration, she spoke to him in a soft, polite way, and he immediately did as she requested. She did it again, and he performed perfectly. She was stunned. (I always wondered: Had Rex trained her?) From then on, they developed a phenomenal bond and became a highly respected team.

Rex was a gentle giant. He had failed out of aggression training at Lackland because any time he bit people wearing protective gear during practice, and they yelled or screamed in response, he immediately let go and look concerned and sad. He and Sgt. Ingraham had many adventures together, both stateside and on deployment. Rex was a godsend to troops who missed home. He always seemed to zero in on the soldiers who were having a bad day, and give them extra attention. He helped get many a solider through a tough deployment.

Sgt. Ingraham loved this dog so much that she re-enlisted with the sole purpose of being able to retire at about the same time Rex would. She dreamed of giving him the couch potato life he so richly deserved. But that was not to be. Rex didn’t live to see retirement. He died suddenly, in her arms, of a rare and fatal condition.

Rex is gone, but the bond will never be broken. This is something I’ve heard from all handlers of fallen dogs, including many from the Vietnam War. These dogs may pass on, but they live forever within their handlers.

I know dogs and I know our Military Dogs. I would never claim to be an expert in either of these subjects though. (The only thing I’m an expert in is getting into the doghouse with my wife!) No matter what level of experience you have with dogs though, I think you too will be enlightened and charmed by Soldier Dogs. I know I was.

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Marine kissing dog

A Dog Saves a Soldier

Recently someone asked me why dogs are so important to me. It would seem justifiably poetic if I told you I was saved by a military working dog in Iraq or Afghanistan saved, but I can’t.

However a dog saved something so much more important than my life. This is one of the many reasons I am so passionate about the power of the pooch.Little Ann and Old Dan

In my post What is a Soldier’s Inspiration to Write a novel in Afghanistan?, I mention that the first book that really made an impact on me was Where the Red Fern grows by Wilson Rawls. I grew up wanting my own Old Dan and Little Ann.

I received my first dog when I was eight, a dachshund named Alfie. When I was 13, I came home from school and my beloved Alfie had been removed from the house. Allegedly, she nipped at a small child who was teasing her. I was heartbroken.

In college I was promised a dog by my then-girlfriend (later to be my wife) if—not when—I graduated from college. Seems like there was some lingering doubt about my potential! Eight years after graduation there was still no dog. Then I got a shock that would rock my entire world, shake me to my core and cause me to take action.

I was a company commander of a 200-soldier company deployed to northwestern Baghdad. My company was charged with picking up the crumbling pieces of the failing Iraqi Police Force in five districts with a total of 17 police stations. Four of the stations had been overrun and ransacked two weeks prior to my company’s taking the mission. It was a challenging mission and my troops and I were in harm’s way, getting shot at and blown up every day. Check out the LA Times article for a snippet of my life that year.

In December of 2004, nine months into the deployment, I went home for mid-tour leave. (I left my female Executive Officer in charge of the 200 Soldier Company, by the way, and she kicked ass.)

During leave in the beautiful Austrian Alps my now ex-wife told me she wasn’t happy in our marriage and didn’t love me like I loved her. In retrospect I should have recognized some of the signals, but I had unconditional faith in a person I had been married to for seven years and together with for thirteen years. I believed our love was unconditional.  I knew that constant deployments were causing stress to our relationship but rationalized that the stress was temporary, the marriage was forever. I was wrong.

A Soldier and his military working dog nose to noseNeedless to say, I flew back to Iraq a shell of myself. On the flight back I decided I was getting a faithful dog when I returned. A dog would never leave you, right?

My company, the 127th Military Police Company, was and still is my family. I rallied for them, but what helped me get through the last few months was spending my sacred few free moments searching for a dog with my company First Sergeant, Damien McIntosh. He was getting a beagle and I settled on a breed I’d never heard of because they reminded me of Little Ann and Old Dan.

Fast forward to late summer 2005. My wife and I had just moved to Fort Leonardwood, Missouri and I went to Kentucky to pick up my new pal, a Vizsla named Sammy, who became my new best friend. As my marriage  continued to fall apart, the one consistent thing in my life was Sammy. I had had to give up command of my company to move to Missouri and I was an instructor for future platoon leaders and company commanders at the U.S. Army Military Police School at the time. Any of my students will tell you that I took Sammy everywhere.

Then my wife moved out, we divorced and I was alone. I was once on top of the world and now my world was blown apart. My company was gone and now the person I invested the last 13 years of my life had left me as well. I lost two families within six months. I was a wreck or a person and I honestly don’t know what I would have done without Sammy. He was there for me every day, anytime, to love, play and cuddle. I found strength and the will to push forward through his unconditional love for me. I wouldn’t be where I am today without him. He was and still is my rock.

So, no, my life wasn’t saved by a dog. My soul was. Sammy Adams Hanrahan is a soul-saver.

 

Sammy Adams Hanrahan

 

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A Military Working Dog Wearing Doogles

Military Dog Picture of the Week. Cool Dogs Wear Shades!

Karlo, a U.S. Army working dog, relaxes in the sun in front of a painted building after completing a full day’s work with his handler in Kirkuk, Iraq, March 20, 2008. U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Samuel Bendet

A Military Working Dog Wearing Doogles

Eddie hops aboard a UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter, along with Iraqi security forces and Soldiers from the 82nd Airborne Division. 15 July 2011. U.S. Army photo by Spc. Daniel Bear 
 A Military Working Dog wears his Doggles

A military working dog wears Doggles to protect his eyes as a Chinook helicopter takes off, kicking up dust and debris, during an air assault operation by U.S. soldiers assigned to Alpha Troop, 1st Squadron, 172nd Cavalry Regiment, 86th Infantry Brigade Combat Team, Parwan province, Afghanistan, May 11, 2010. U.S. Army photo by Sgt. Jason Brace

A Military Working Dog wears his Doggles

Zeko checking out the ladies. He loves his googles because the ladies can’t tell that he is checking them out!

 A Military Working Dog wears his Doggles

“Hey Baby, do you like my big tongue.”

  In case you missed or want to revisit prior weeks. Here are the links.

Military Dog Picture of the Week. (April 18th, 2012) Thirsty Pups!

Military Dog Picture of the Week. (April 11th, 2012) The Brilliant Brits!

Military Dog Picture of the Week. (April 4th, 2012)

 
Army Specialist Marc Whitaker with Military Working Dog Anax

Part IV Marc and Anax: The Struggle to Move On

 This is Part IV of The Marc and Anax series. You may wish to read Part III or skip right back to Part I first.

Army Specialist Marc Whittaker walks into the kennel every day with his heart beating quickly and his mind spinning. He looks to his left and then to his right and then he hesitates.

To the right is retired Military Working Dog Anax, who whimpers for him. Anax is his son who now has three legs because he took a bullet that was meant for Marc.

To his left, Marc’s new dog, Military Working Dog Dark, whimpers for him.

What he’d like to do is take both dogs outside so he could play and frolic with his two pals without a purpose. Marc wants to take them home and never bring them back to the kennels. But he knows that can’t happen. Dark is a highly trained Patrol Narcotics Detection Dog (PNDD) in the United States Army.

Marc is a highly trained military working dog handler. He is skilled and proficient in the task of employing bomb and narcotic dogs while the United States is at war. His son Anax may be retired, but Marc’s skills as a dog handler are needed.

Marc is conflicted between the past and the future, between two dogs—both whimpering, begging for affection and attention from one man.

Army Specialist Marc Whitaker with Military Working Dog AnaxHe knows he shouldn’t, but he can’t help himself. Marc turns left to see his Shepalicious son Anax. His sergeants have told him to stop spending so much time with Anax. They want Marc bonding with Dark because they want Marc and Dark to complete Military Working Dog Certification so they can be employed as a dog team. They also want Marc to re-kindle his love of training dogs. They want to see the same fiery and energetic soldier they sent to Afghanistan. But Marc is a soldier who came back from Afghanistan a shell of his once proud self.

Anax barks and leaps up on the door with his two front paws. He loses his balance and falls to the ground. His one back leg is unable to support him. He still doesn’t understand what happened to him. He still wants to go out and train with Marc. He wants to find explosives, run through the obstacle course and maybe bite some protective sleeves.

He grunts and leaps back up on his three legs, his tongue is hanging low and he bounces with excitement when Marc opens the door. Marc embraces him and holds him tight. He can’t wait until the paperwork is completed and he can ship Anax back to his home in Texas. Anax will forever be in the Whittaker family.  But, like with anything in the military, military working dog retirement and adoption take time. Marc fights back the tears. After a few minutes of comfort and affection, Marc feels his stomach stomach begin to churn. He knows it’s time

He hears Anax whimpering as he walks through the kennel towards Military Working Dog Dark. Marc looks down at small-framed German Sheppard. His first thought is “He’s no Anax.” Army Specialist Marc Whitaker with Military Working Dog Anax

Dark is still a puppy, so he has ample energy. He jumps up on the kennel door and does a half spin into his house and then back out again. Dark has this high pitched puppy yelp-howling that makes Marc’s ears ring.

Marc wishes he was as excited to see Dark as Dark is to see him. He sighs and opens the door to the kennel. Dark jumps up on him.

“No. Sit,” commands Marc.

He looks down at the sitting dog that is staring at him with his big sad dark eyes. Anax never jumped on him like that.

Marc knows he needs to get serious about bonding and training Military Working Dog Dark so he takes Dark outside into the cold German morning. The cold breeze further deflates Marc’s already depleted enthusiasm. He unleashes Dark who darts around the training yard, running the fence line and stretching his stiff legs. He rolls on the ground, scratching his back, and then leaps up and down in front of Marc with his tail wagging. He is amped up and ready to show his new friend his stuff. He runs in circles around Marc, barking as he goes.

Marc sighs at the barely two-year-old puppy’s’ energy as the cold wind sweeps across his neck trying to sneak down into his green fleece jacket. He shivers and shakes his head.

He’s been through this before with Anax.  Anax is two years Dark’s senior and doesn’t act like a puppy. A deployment to Afghanistan and a tragic injury will mature anyone, man or dog.  Now Marc has to start all over again.

Marc knows certification is coming in less than a month. He’s been Dark’s handler for three months and feels the pressure from his peers and supervisors to start contributing. The constant flow of missions and deployments needs to be spread around. Every soldier and dog must do his part, but no certification means no mission. Marc also knows that no mission means an increase in kennel maintenance. Marc will be on “poop” patrol instead of out doing what he loves.

He wipes his runny nose, takes a deep breath and resigns himself to his fate.

“Anax. I mean Dark, come.”

The German shepherd launches himself at Marc and lands his two front paws on Marc’s chest. Marc strokes the dog’s head and stares into Dark’s almond shaped eyes. He knows that Dark wants nothing more than to please him. What Dark doesn’t understand is that there is only one thing that would please his new handler. Anax.

Military Working Dog AnaxCan Marc and Dark build that bond critical for a dog team?

What will happen to Anax?

Will Marc and Dark pass certification?  

 

Click here for the next exciting chapter in this story!

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Four women looking tired

Here are More Reasons Why Women Have no Place in Combat Units

In my first post on the women in combat subject Women Shouldn’t Be in Combat Units!, I received an outpouring of “hate” mail and tweets. As I sorted through them, I attempted to understand why folks believe women shouldn’t be in combat. I am honestly interested in everyone’s thoughts.

I put together a list of reasons provided to me and followed up with a second post, Reasons Why Women Shouldn’t Be in Combat Units.  Very quickly I received another volley of reasons why I was wrong about this—why women REALLY should not be in combat units.

Really?    

I’m good with admitting I’m wrong when I am, but you have yet to convince me on this subject. So let’s take a look at what else folks have told me is their reasoning is for excluding women in combat units.

“I don’t want to see a woman service member die in combat.”

Really?

Hey, man, it is way too late. Plenty of women have come home from Iraq and Afghanistan in wooden boxes. You know why—because they were warriors who fought and died for their country. They paid the ultimate sacrifice so you could continue to patronize them freely.

As an officer in the United States Army I don’t want any service member to die in combat. But this isn’t a reality.

 

“Women aren’t physically capable of handling the stresses of war.”

Wait, what, really?

Here is a quick funny story. It is 2004 and I’m a company commander stationed in Germany. My boss tells me there is some reorganization about to happen. He tells me to choose three of the four lieutenants I have to deploy with the company to Iraq. At the time I have two female and two male lieutenants.

So let’s talk physical strength. I have a lieutenant I’ll call Boris. Boris was a beast—He could run faster than almost anyone in the company. In the combative pit he was unbeatable unless we sent two or three people in there to take him down.  Guess what, though—He couldn’t lead anyone to the bathroom.

I’ll never forget the conversation when I tell him I’m choosing a female lieutenant over him.

“Boris, you need more development as an officer and leader,” I say. “I’ve chosen to take Lieutenant Velazquez with the company to Iraq.”

He has a look of shock on his face that turns to disgust as he says, “But, Sir, she’s a girl. You are choosing a girl over me?”

I’m perplexed by his response but remain firm as I say, “Yes, I am, Boris.”

As a company commander the gender issue wasn’t even taken into consideration. I wanted the best officer to lead my soldiers.

What happened to those two young officers? One deploys successfully to Iraq, is awarded two bronze stars (one for valor) and skillfully leads a platoon of 36 young Americans for an entire year. The other deploys to Afghanistan with my buddy’s company and is subsequently fired as a platoon leader. Guess which one is which.

Let me give you a clue: a lesson to be learned in this case is that physical strength is only one facet of a Warrior.

“Women aren’t emotionally or mentally capable of handling the stresses of war.”

Really?

Have you told this to the thousands of women serving in Afghanistan today? What I love about this comment is that it is being proven wrong every day, but for some reason there are people who still believe this. So, if you are one of those people who believe this, I’m here to tell you that you’re dead wrong. How do I know? I’ve seen women perform exceptionally well under the stresses of war with my own eyes.

My challenge to those of you that still don’t believe me: Show me an example of your position. Show me an example of a woman not emotionally or mentally capable of handling the stresses of war. Who knows, you may be able to produce one. But I can produce 10 times as many examples of men breaking down because of the stresses of war. War affects every single person differently—female or male, it doesn’t matter. It is an individual reaction.

So really, guys, I mean really?

Maybe it is time to stop typecasting service members because of gender. What I see in the “hate” comments is nothing but people’s (mostly males who think like Boris) assumptions based on zero supporting evidence.

Am I wrong here? Please tell me why I am wrong or not.

I’ve heard from firefighters and police. Are there other jobs facing similar societal stereotypes?

Does anyone have any examples to share of good or bad experiences with men or women service members during enemy contact?

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Military Working Dog drinking water

Military Dog Picture of the Week. (April 18th, 2012) Thirsty Pups!

U.S. Air Force Staff Sgt. Robert Fowler gives water to King, his military working dog, during a clearing operation in the village of Tammuz, Iraq, March 2, 2009. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Walter

 SGT McGhee and Miltary Working Dog Archie

U.S. Army Sgt. Justin McGhee, 67th Engineer Detachment, dog handler, gives his dog a drink of water after searching several compounds in an Afghan village, June 26, 2010, Dand District Kandahar, Afghanistan. Sergeant McGhee was attached to the Royal Air Force II Squadron during a joint patrol with the Afghan National Army 205th Corps and Afghan National Police in search of insurgents, weapons caches and illegal drugs. As a result, three insurgents were found and detained, along with several pounds of marijuana. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Kenny Holston)(Released)

 U.S. Marine Corps Cpl. Cody Richael, a dog handler with 2nd Platoon, Lima Company, 3rd Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment, gives his dog some water during a census patrol in Sangin, Afghanistan, Jan. 6, 2011. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Lance Cpl. Dexter S. Saulisbury/Released)

U.S. Marine Corps Cpl. Cody Richael, a dog handler with 2nd Platoon, Lima Company, 3rd Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment, gives his dog some water during a census patrol in Sangin, Afghanistan, Jan. 6, 2011. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Lance Cpl. Dexter S. Saulisbury/Released

 Military Working Dog takes a drink

A U.S. Army Soldier from Bravo Company, 2nd Battalion, 23rd Infantry Regiment, 4th Brigade Combat Team, 2nd Infantry Division watches a K-9 handler share water with his dog in Muqdadiyah, Iraq, Jan. 29, 2008. (U.S. Army photo by Spc. Shawn M. Cassatt) (Released)

 In case you missed or want to revisit prior weeks. Here are the links.

Military Dog Picture of the Week. (April 11th, 2012) The Brilliant Brits!

Military Dog Picture of the Week. (April 4th, 2012)

Military Dog Pictures of the Week (March 28, 2012)

 

Military Working Dog Chuck in Afghanistan

Noah and Military Working Dog Chuck: The Stubborn Puppy Grows Up

 Note: This is Part II of this series. If you haven’t read Part I you might want to read that post first.

Spectacular brown jagged mountains surrounded the Konduz Airfield in northern Afghanistan, reminiscent of Sergeant Noah Carpenter’s home in Arizona. But Noah couldn’t focus on the spectacular scenery. His focus was squarely on the fact that he was standing on a flight line alone, with his Military Working Dog Chuck faithfully by his side.

“What the hell should I do now?” thought Noah?

He looked down at his two duffle bags, rucksack, ferry kennel and a “tough box” full of Chuck’s gear and supplied and shook his head in disbelief. There was no way he could “hump” all that gear anywhere.

“Crap!” he said under his breath.

The soldiers that had landed with him at the remote camp were already picked up by their units. When he spoke, a group of Afghan soldiers eyed him curiously. They talked amongst themselves, pointed at Noah and Chuck and nodded. Noah tensed and the hair on Chuck’s back rose as he eyed the AK-47 bearing, Afghan army soldiers.

“Are they friend or foe?” Noah thought. “Can they be trusted? Who the hell is supposed to pick me up? How the hell did I get into the situation?

30 days earlier Noah had arrived at the major hub for United States Forces in Afghanistan, Bagram Airbase. He knew he was arriving in a combat zone with an inexperienced, “green” dog. He and Chuck had barely passed explosive detection certification back in Hawaii and now they would be expected to spend time at Bagram to train on  explosives commonly found in Afghanistan before being sent out to a unit. He knew that those few weeks would be spent imprinting his stubborn knucklehead of a dog Chuck on homemade explosives (HME) such as ammonium nitrate, rocket propelled grenades, land mines and other explosives not available to him for training back in Hawaii. These explosives are key components of the Taliban’s effective improvised explosive device (IED) tactic.

“How is your dog on odor, Sergeant,” asked Staff Sergeant Darrel Wade, the Combined Joint Special Operation Forces kennel master.

“He is excellent. He can find anything,” Noah said confidently.

“Good, how about your dog’s OB?” the Staff Sergeant asked, using the shorthand for “obedience.”

Noah hesitated and admitted with reluctance, “He needs some work, Sergeant.”

Military Working Dog Chuck in AfghanistanChuck let out a series of barks from his ferry kennel that was resting in the back of the Toyota SUV.

He seemed to be saying, “Stop talking about me, Dad. I’m right here.”

For two weeks Noah and Chuck trained on the explosive odors common to Afghanistan. Chuck was a natural at picking the scents up and Noah was excited. He started to wonder if his dog could be turning into “Chuck, the Natural” and not “Chuck, the Stubborn Puppy”?

“Seek,” Noah directed.

Chuck didn’t hesitate as he stretched the extendable 26-foot leash connected to Noah’s body armor by a black metal carabineer. His tail wagged, nose remained low and eyes focused. Chuck was a natural. Or was he?

Noah saw Chuck jerk his body back at a spot in the ground that appeared to have darker dirt that for a seasoned dog handler is a telltale sign that the dirt was recently disrupted. Chuck sat and then plopped his mahogany body on the ground focusing on the dark spot of dirt with his almond shaped brown eyes.Military Working Dog Chuck in Afghanistan

“Come,” Noah commanded. Chuck edged closer to the dark dirt spot.

“Come,” Noah demanded. Chuck began pawing at the dirt. His nose was buried in an instant.

“Crap,” thought Noah as he ran up and pulled the dog off of the explosives. He didn’t want Chuck chewing on a live land mine. Chuck wagged his tail happily and rubbed his black muzzle against Noah’s leg.

He seemed to be saying, “I did good, Dad. Look, I found it. Can I have some love now? How about tossing me that Kong, pal?”

Noah sighed and shook his head at the hardheaded Belgian Malinois.

“The damn dog does whatever he wants out there. His detection skills are better than any dog I’ve ever had, but I can’t control him,” he told Wade. He brushed the grainy sand from Chuck’s nose.

“Carpenter, I think I know what’s wrong. Let’s go back to the kennels. I want you to watch a video,” said Staff Sergeant Wade.

As Noah watched the video made by the renowned Doctor Hilliard from the Department of Defense Canine School at Lackland Airbase the light bulb went off in Noah’s head. Everything he had learned at canine school seven years earlier had been replaced. Instead of compulsion training, dogs were coming out of Lackland being trained in Clear Signal Training.

“So you mean I’ve been speaking Spanish to him and Chuck only knows French?” Noah asked.

Staff Sergeant Wade nodded, “Yep.”

The word about the new training technique hadn’t made it to his kennel back in Hawaii, so Noah had been trying to control Noah with commands and signals that Chuck wasn’t trained on. Chuck wasn’t a stubborn knucklehead!

With the help of Staff Sergeant Wade, Noah received a crash course on Clear Signal Training. After that and hundreds of hours of training with Chuck, Noah and his dog smoked validation and were shipped to Konduz.

Newly anointed, Chuck the Natural began to growl menacingly as several Afghan soldiers stepped toward the pair on the Konduz Airfield tarmac. Noah slid a hand onto the pistol grip of his M4 Carbine rifle and put his thumb onto the safety mechanism.

The sun had disappeared over the scorched brown mountains 30 minutes prior and Noah knew it would be dark soon.

He glanced down at the ammunition pouches strapped to vest. His magazines were each loaded with 30 rounds of 5.56 Millimeter ammunition. His 9 Millimeter Beretta was strapped to his chest. There were about twenty Afghans against him and Chuck.

Should he unleash Chuck?

Should he pull out another magazine?

Should he flee or fight?

His breathing got heavy; his heart was pounding and his head spinning. It was decision time for Sergeant Noah Carpenter.

Click here for the exciting next chapter in this story!

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dog in the water

What Not to Do When You’re Writing a Novel

I learned a lot by experimenting with writing Paws on the Ground and sending it out into the world. There will always be a lot of trial and error in writing and publishing a book, and I might be able to save you a few hassles by showing you where, in hindsight, I see I made some mistakes.

In my initial post in this series, How do you Write a Book? I provided you my novels “comprehensive” outline which looked like this:

Intro 10K words

Training 25K words

Afghanistan 40K words

Ending 5K words

When I posted about self-doubt in Does self-doubt consume you?, I left you with the fact that I was already over my planned introduction word limit by 7,000 words. So with a 17,000 word intro I jumped into the training portion of my book which would take my two main characters through their Army training prior to their arrival in Afghanistan.

As I reflect on this journey I think, Did I really plan 35K words (140 pages) before I got to the heart of the story. Wow, was that a mistake. But I digress.

I wrote the heck out of that training piece but had a lot of trouble building in conflict and tension with my heroine’s character. Her introduction was choppy and I felt like I was inventing things for her. Bottom line is that I struggled with it and my writing didn’t flow. In retrospect I think that was because it had no place in the book.

When I completed the training portion, I was at 46K total words. Yes, this was before my characters even arrived into Afghanistan. Military dogs—which is what makes my book so very special–didn’t  appear until page 156! The characters didn’t even arrive into Afghanistan until well past page 200.

When my characters hit Afghanistan my writing flowed and the words poured from my laptop. I should have taken my flowing writing as a sign of what was really important about the book. They flowed a little too much, though, and by the time I completed the story I was at 142,000 words! Then I wrote another 4K in a closing (another mistake which I’ll talk about in another post). When I left Afghanistan the manuscript was standing strong at 146, 124 words! (61K over my goal, for those counting)

Something amazing happened the day I was leaving Afghanistan. I was sitting in the Bagram Airfield Chow Hall eating breakfast andMilitary Working dog in the dark waiting for my 3:00 PM flight to Kuwait. I froze and went numb as the news flashed across the screen. It was May 1, 2011 and Seal Team six had just killed Osama Bin Laden. My jaw nearly fell to the ground as I watched reports of Military Working Dog Cairo leading the Seals through the Bin Laden compound. The news reporters were fascinated by the idea of a dog leading a patrol of troops to safety. I realized right there and then that the novel I had just written could be more than just a creative outlet for me.

While in Kuwait I spent the five days waiting for a “freedom flight” intensely editing the novel. I was proud of my achievement and excited to get home and find an editor.

When I returned home, I talked with Cindy Shearer and Ginger Moran again, labored with the decision but finally went with Ginger for three reasons:

  1. She was as energetic about the project as I.
  2. I was moving from Ft Bragg, NC to Virginia and Ginger is in Virginia.
  3. She could talk about her own dogs as long I could.

We started off small because I was just not sure about the whole process. Ginger edited the first 50 pages and when I read them I was amazed at the polish she added to my writing! I wanted to do more right away but after a long talk we decided to go on a “fishing expedition” to judge interest in the project. We worked together on a query letter and I researched literary agents. With query letter in hand and a list of agents to query we decided to send out a feeler of three agents.

In hindsight this was a mistake. We should have completed the entire edit before we queried. That novel should have been sparkling before I queried it. A long time ago, editors would help edit a book that wasn’t quite ready for prime time. More recently, agents would do this work with the writer to get it ready for the publishing world. Today the book needs to be completely polished before it goes to the agents. With a book as timely as Paws and with commercial potential, the agent will want to take it directly to editors. I learned all this later.

At the time, my top agent choice was Agent A of Trident Media. He seemed like a great fit with his extended experience in military and dog related books.

I emailed Agent A my query letter.  Agent A emailed me back within five minutes, before I even had the chance to email other agents. I caught him late on a Friday at his desk and he wanted to see the book! He wanted to see the unedited version and then the edited version once completed. He asked for an exclusive. Granting him an exclusive was a mistake–I recommend you never do this because time is of the essence! I was blown away! I thought for sure I had landed my dream agent on the first shot. Oh, how wrong I was!

Has anyone made some of the mistake I did? Please share.

What do you think happened withAgent A?

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British Army Pvt. Steve Smith, with the 104 Theater Military Working Dog Support Unit (TMWDSU), tosses a toy for military working dog Memphis at Camp Bastion, Helmand province, Afghanistan, March 12, 2011. British soldiers with 104 TMWDSU conducted daily training exercises so that the military working dogs provided safety and security through repetitive action. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Lance Cpl. Robert R. Carrasco/Released)

Military Dog Picture of the Week. (April 11th, 2012) The Brilliant Brits!

British Army Pvt. Steve Smith, with the 104 Theater Military Working Dog Support Unit (TMWDSU), tosses a toy for military working dog Memphis at Camp Bastion, Helmand province, Afghanistan, March 12, 2011. British soldiers with 104 TMWDSU conducted daily training exercises so that the military working dogs provided safety and security through repetitive action. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Lance Cpl. Robert R. Carrasco/Released)

British Army Pvt. Holly Davenport, with the 104 Theater Military Working Dog Support Unit (TMWDSU), restrains military working dog Dennis during a controlled aggressive demonstration at Camp Bastion, Helmand province, Afghanistan, March 12, 2011. British soldiers with 104 TMWDSU conducted daily training exercises so that the military working dogs provided safety and security through repetitive action. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Lance Cpl. Robert R. Carrasco/Released)

British army Pvt. Kevin Daley searches vehicles with military working dog Sonny during a vehicle inspection at Camp Bastion, Helmand province, Afghanistan, March 12, 2011. British soldiers with 104 Theater Military Working Dog Support Unit conduct training exercises on a daily basis. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Lance Cpl. Robert R. Carrasco/Released)

 

British army Pvt. Kevin Daley searches vehicles with military working dog Sonny during a vehicle inspection at Camp Bastion, Helmand province, Afghanistan, March 12, 2011. British soldiers with 104 Theater Military Working Dog Support Unit conduct training exercises on a daily basis. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Lance Cpl. Robert R. Carrasco/Released)

 In case you missed or want to revisit prior weeks. Here are the links. 

Military Dog Picture of the Week. (April 4th, 2012)

Military Dog Pictures of the Week (March 28, 2012)

Military Dog Picture of the Week (March 21, 2012): Kong Euphoria!

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SSD Handlers

John and the Lumbering “Honza Bear”

“Why me,” thought Specialist John Nolan as he looked around at the other 11 students in his specialized search dog (SSD) class at Lackland Air Force Base, Texas. The other guys were looking at one another, smiling, laughing and joking. But John stared at the ground. He wished he could share their enthusiasm.

Everyone else was receiving two dogs and would get to choose their K9 partner but not him. He was getting the mine detector dog washout. He bit his bottom lip and shook his head.

“We’ve tried him before with four other SSD students and he never works out,” his instructors informed him.

This is not what the three-year-and-one-combat-deployment Army veteran had expected when he volunteered for K9 School. He felt like the instructors were setting him up for failure. He looked from side to side at the other dogs as he raked his finger over the cages while he walked through the kennels. They were all barking excitingly and twirling around in their kennels like tops. Why couldn’t he have one of the other guys “good” dogs to go with his washout, wondered John as he shuffled his feet down the kennel walkway.

“That’s him right there, Nolan. The big goofy labrador is yours.”Military Working Dog Honza head on and close up

John sighed heavily and turned to face his new partner, the partner that he would be relying on to find improvised explosives before they found him.

He turned, with his hands on his hips and stared at the unimpressive yellow dog who barely acknowledged his presence. John looked up at his name plate above his kennel. It read “Honza, 4YO, male.” He looked down at Honza who was sprawled out on the ground at the rear of his kennel.

Honza let out a yawn, looked up at him and seemed to be saying, “I’ve been through this before with other handlers. I sabotaged them and I’ll do the same to you. Let’s get this over with so I can lounge around.”

John’s shoulders tensed as he reached for the kennel door and opened it. Honza got to his feet. John took a step forward into the cage, closing the gate behind him, and was quickly pushed backwards landing on his rear end with Honza on top off him. Honza’a massive front paws were on his chest and his wet slimy pink tongue was lathering John’s face with saliva. The 80-pound dog pushed him into the metal chain link fence and John struggled to regain his composure as bellowed deep belly laughs.

His family dogs—Ralph, a beagle, and Rosie, his Jack Russell terrier—never had the bulk to take him down like this when he was growing up. He’d been caught off guard by the lab.

Military Working Dog Honza's big headJohn wrapped his arms around the dog, squeezing him and pulling him against his body tightly. He could feel the dog’s heart pounding and Honza groaned with delight as he tried to lick John’s face some more. It came back to John that he hadn’t had a dog since he joined the Army. He desperately missed the companionship and comfort his family dogs always provided.

“Don’t worry, this dog is only temporary, Nolan. We’ll get you a good dog,” a passing instructor said.

John looked up at the instructor and wondered what was wrong with Honza? He seemed like a good dog. He pushed his head against the short yellow fur on the dog’s head and peered into his brown eyes with a hint of a rust color to them. Honza’s tail hadn’t stopped wagging since John had entered the cage and it was now whacking the man’s leg and felt like he was being hit lightly by a leather belt.

“What is your problem, pal?”

Two days later he found out exactly what was wrong when they ran their first search drill. Honza took three times the amount of time to complete the exercise as the other dogs had. He was slow, lethargic, appearing to be out for a Sunday stroll rather than finding explosives. Honza had no sense of urgency.

John watched him curiously and thought that he looked like an unwieldy bear, poking around for snacks at a campsite. Paw this and paw that. He would sniff here and there, stroll to the left or right and sniff again, look at a passing butterfly and then take a few more steps with his nose down. His long yellow tail was wagging from side to side as if it were a windshield wiper on a rainy day. He was Honza the Bear!

“Don’t worry, Nolan. He’ll be your backup dog. We are giving you another dog tomorrow,” his instructor informed him.

John looked up at the staff sergeant instructor and wanted to ask, “What if I don’t want another dog?  What if I want Honza Bear to be my dog?” But he kept his mouth shut.

John had made a cardinal mistake at dog school. He had fallen in love instantly with the big goofy knucklehead lab. He couldn’t help it. Honza reminded him of his beagle Ralph, just larger.

Military Working Dog Honza'slicking his lips

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Will John get to keep Honza as his dog?

What happens when John is given additional dogs to work with?

Can Honza finally be turned into an effective working dog?

Click here for the next exciting chapter in this story!    

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