A Marine- After the Death of his Working Dog in Afghanistan
Corporal Cluver and his fellow Marines, after Archie saved their life.
The kennels at Camp Hanson, the marine headquarters for Marjeh district, have been named in Archie’s honor. They currently house four of the thirteen dogs attached to 3/6 Marines and their two extra companies. The other nine reside with their handlers’ units at other bases across the district. Staff Sergeant Ricky Allen supervises the dogs and their handlers, all of whom underwent weeks of specialized training to establish a bond between the marine and their personal dog.
Corporal Cluver now works with a three year old female black lab named Jawdy, one of three dogs he tried working with at the provincial headquarters, Camp Leatherneck, after Archie passed away. Although Jawdy had previously worked with a handler in the field during Operation Moshtarak, Helmand province’s part of the surge, she was unassigned when Cluver came up. They clicked. When Cluver lets her out of her kennel she wriggles up at his feet, tail wagging furiously, and sets to licking his hands. When he gives her a command to sit, heel, or return to her kennel, she responds so fast that the response seems hardwired into her nervous system.
The dogs are trained initially by a civilian company, American Canine Interdiction—AK9I—who also keep a trainer on base to work with the dogs and their handlers during deployment. Handlers spend a minimum of three to four hours each day working with their dogs, says SSgt. Allen. “We try to push it to where [the handlers] don’t have extra duties, so they have more time to concentrate on sustainment training with the dogs.”
Sustainment training involves a variety of activities, but at the core of it is a mock-detection course set up by the battalion’s explosive ordinance disposal unit. SSgt Allen uses samples of different explosives’ scents to create marks for the dogs to sniff out while working under their handler’s commands. The civilian trainer from AK9I is also present at every one of the hour-long, twice-daily individual training sessions that each dog receives.
Occasionally, the exigencies of the battlefield can push training towards the bizarre. “When we got out here there was a big problem with—mainly the males—but some of the dogs would actually kill the local chickens.” So they went to a local Afghan shop and bought a large white chicken, and started inserting it into training exercises. If a dog started to go for the fowl, they’d get a quick zap from their training collar.
The chicken’s name is Bait. It is the same chicken Allen purchased back in June, and has its own cage in the kennel with the dogs. “Nope, no chicken casualties,” SSgt Allen smiles. “Couple have grabbed some feathers off him, but that’s as far as they’ve gotten.”
All this training does what it’s supposed to do—save lives—even when things don’t go as planned. During a patrol in a windstorm in eastern Marjeh, an IDD dog named Rodeo was rendered nasally ‘blind’ by the swirling air currents around him and his handler, LCpl Mathew Cato. Moving about as he attempted to locate a trace of anything at all, Rodeo knocked a rock over with his hind leg—exposing an IED buried beneath. Rodeo took one sniff and immediately covered. His handler was three paces away. No-one was hurt.
The dogs’ senses can be acutely sharp in the right conditions. SSgt Allen estimates that the dogs cover on false positives about fifty percent of the time, but most of these are not actually ‘false’. The dogs’ noses are so sensitive that they can detect now-empty cache locations where explosives were stored and removed, or ancient ordinance up to six feet underground that has decayed into harmlessness. Rusted-out Soviet landmines from the 1980’s are a not-infrequent discovery for marines on patrol with an IDD dog.
On a recent op in the Bari desert another of 3/6’s dogs, Rambo, covered repeatedly on a spot near a wall which a conspicuous kite handle’s string ran down into. The ground was hard-packed, though, and on inspection with a robot no weapons or explosives were found. LCpl Duvalle, Rambo’s handler, and the EOD team concluded that there may well have been a cache, but it was likely emptied at least two or three months previous.
The dogs’ training gives them an almost indefinite working life. As long as the dog is physically capable of keeping up, he or she can continue to work. Cann, one of the first dogs to come through AK9I’s program, is now eight years old and currently serving his seventh deployment with another battalion in Helmand province. This may be his last deployment, though, as age is beginning to take its toll.
When a dog retires, the most recent handler has the first option to adopt them. They generally do, if circumstances allow. “Obviously,” SSgt Allen says a little ruefully, “if the kid’s living in the barracks, he can’t keep a dog there.” IDD dogs are also sometimes moved to civilian agencies, like SWAT or police departments, where bomb detection duties are less physically strenuous than in a warzone.
The handlers themselves almost universally have dogs back home. Cpl Cluver, Archie and Jawdy’s handler, has two basset hounds named Winston and Rommel (he admits through a grin that he and his wife are both history majors). SSgt Allen grew up surrounded by beagles, coonhounds, and Labradors. But their connection with these dogs, half a planet and a whole reality away from home, is as palpable as the thump of the dogs’ tails whenever their handlers come near. It is a connection that may just end up saving both of their lives
Here the first part of Marine Working Dog Archie‘s story
(C) Lawrence Dabney 2011
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