Listening to barking, whining, and growling, Private First Class Jeremy Wirths felt like he was standing outside the dog pound.
He could barely hear his sergeant’s commands as he looked around the sprawling Vohne Liche Kennel compound in Denver, Indiana. It looked like a small military compound and had the atmosphere of one.
Jeremy glanced over at the massive rectangular warehouse-like building where the barking was coming from.
Though the warehouse looked like your average run-of-the-mill rectangular building, he knew the other side was fenced, with at least 60 dog runs for the working dog candidates in the kennels—hence the ruckus.
Soon he would be walking point with one of those explosive-detecting dogs in Afghanistan. But he wasn’t a dog handler.
This was crazy, right? He couldn’t learn to do this in nine weeks.
Jeremy had only been in the Army for five months and the Army had already shafted him twice.
If this was how he was going to be treated then it would be a very short enlistment for him. He had options. He wasn’t in the Army because he had to be here.
Jeremy wanted to be here. Or at least he had wanted to be.
This wasn’t what the 28-year-old had anticipated when he left his job as an Emergency Medical Technician and 911 Dispatcher in Falmouth, Maine. He could be back in Maine, continuing to rise through the ranks and to carve out a fulfilling life for himself.
But that was the problem—he wasn’t fulfilled.
Jeremy Wirths needed more.
Jeremy wanted to serve his country, especially his country at war. This desire had burned inside him since he was in the sixth grade and first read Chuck Yeager’s autobiography.
Service was certainly a determining factor, but, honestly, Jeremy was bored with his life back home. He needed a new challenge.
So he had been ecstatic to learn he could join the Army directly as a Special Forces candidate, referred to as an 18 X-ray. He was going to become a Green Beret.
Basic training had gone great. Jeremy had excelled. But then he got screwed at Airborne School at Fort Benning and there went his chance of becoming an 18 X-ray—swirling down the toilet bowl.
He had gotten the dreaded “41” at Airborne School.
The first morning at Airborne School candidates must do a physical training test comprised of two minutes of pushups, sit-ups, and a timed two-mile run. Every Airborne school candidate must meet the minimum requirements. The minimum for the pushups is 42 in those two minutes.
The pushups are the first event. If you don’t reach 42 then you fail the entire physical fitness test. Jeremy had no issues with pushups, finding it easy to do well over 50 before he joined the military and 65 in basic training.
The morning of the physical fitness test the rumor in the class was that the Army had overbooked the course, expecting soldiers to fail the physical fitness exam. Jeremy was at the end of the line to take the test and, as he got closer to his turn, he knew there was a problem.
There weren’t masses of folks failing in front of him, meaning that the instructors were filling up the course. In fact he could see the class was filling up quickly. Jeremy was stressed that there wouldn’t be room for him.
Four guys ahead of him in line, a stocky and fit guy lowered himself to the ground for the start of his pushups.
As the guy knocked out 68 perfect pushups, Jeremy could tell he was one of those people that spent serious time in the gym.
Another spot taken, thought Jeremy as he leaned in to listen to the black-hatted, chiseled-featured, rock hard Sergeant Airborne instructor announce the gym rat’s score.
“41, soldier,” the instructor announced.
Apparently the evaluator hadn’t counted all the pushups. The soldier failed, and he wouldn’t be going forward with this Airborne School class.
As Jeremy watched the remaining three soldiers in front of him all get “41’d,” he knew the same fate awaited him. But he still tried.
He wasn’t quite sure how many pushups he had successfully completed at the end of two minutes, but he already knew what his final score was.
So Jeremy reverted to 11B, an infantryman, and shipped off to Fort Drum, New York where he joined 1st platoon, Alpha Company, 2-22 Infantry Battalion, 1st Brigade Combat Team, 10th Mountain Division.
But he wasn’t going. They already had a full platoon, so Jeremy would be stuck at Fort Drum sitting on his ass pulling weeds from the motor pool while his buddies were off kicking Taliban ass.
This was just another kick in the shorts, but he tried to remain positive, keeping his nose to the grindstone and waiting for his opportunity.
That opportunity came when word arrived from Brigade that they were looking for guys to go train as Tactical Explosive Detector Dog Handlers (TEDD) and deploy to Afghanistan.
He had grown up around dogs all his life. His mom had a house full of Shelties, while his aunts and grandmother always seemed to have a Golden Retriever in the house. His favorite dog growing up was an energetic lovebug named Holly. She had since passed, but when he was growing up Holly had been his girl.
During his civilian life he was around police K9′s and always had an interest in their work. He volunteered to train with them and did demonstrations.
But was the Army dangling yet another carrot in front of him? When he reached out to grab it would they pull it away again, just like Airborne School and Special Forces?
But if he didn’t try he definitely wouldn’t get selected, so he volunteered with 175 other people in the brigade. The problem was they were only going to take 17 volunteers.
Jeremy breezed through company, battalion, and program representative selection processes and was elated that he was one of the final 17 that were chosen.
Finally his Army luck was changing.
Or was it?
Outside the Vohne Liche Kennel, he watched as two beefy civilians strode towards the group of soldiers, swaggering confidently as they walked, leashes dangling loosely in their hands.
At the end of those leashes were two police dogs. Jeremy thought they were called Malinois but wasn’t exactly sure. They weren’t German Shepherds—he knew that for sure.
He had no dog handling experience. Could he really learn how to handle a dog and find explosives with a dog in nine weeks?
Or had he just been set up for the ultimate failure by the Army?
Stay tuned for the next episode!
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