By Ed Darack
Best Defense guest canine correspondent
"That's Henry, one of our combat dogs. Just had a litter of puppies, so Henry's out of commission for a bit," Marine Corporal Justin Bradley told me during a tour of Camp Blessing, shortly after I arrived at the small fire base nestled deep inside eastern Afghanistan's Kunar Province.
"Henry?...had puppies?" I asked.
"Short for Henryetta," the corporal answered. "There's also Hamchuck, the pups' father. He's gone now, though." Bradley went on to explain how Henry -- and now her pups -- came to be at this dusty outpost, an encampment ringed by Hesco barriers and Concertina razor wire. "Special Forces were the first in here, an Army National Guard ODA (Operational Detachment-Alpha) out of Utah, I think. Hamchuck and Henry wandered inside the base, which had been a school and a clinic, then a Taliban outpost, and then a Special Forces base after they overthrew the Taliban in the area. The SF guys trained the two to chase bad guys out of compounds and caves after lowering them on ropes from helicopters when they did raids. When bad guys came running out with the dogs on their tails, the SF guys would either capture or shoot them if they put up a fight. That's the story, anyway." Justin went on to explain how the two dogs, and then just Henry, accompanied the Marines and local fighters attached to the Marines on raids and patrols, even helping with the search effort for downed Navy SEALs and Army Special Operations pilots and crew during Operation Red Wings. With a litter of puppies, however, Henry was taking a well-deserved break. "She'll be back with us again soon enough, though," The corporal concluded.
I was a little shocked when I saw a mother dog with her pups surrounded by razor wire, artillery, belts of ammunition, and everything else related to war. This was my first trip to a combat arena, and while I expected surprise above all else in preparation for sights to witness and experiences to live, I didn't expect to see a mother dog with her pups. And I really didn't expect to learn that the mother dog would soon be returning to the dangers outside the often-attacked camp's perimeter during patrols with the Marines.
I crossed paths with a dog in war again a couple years later, this time in Iraq. Not found and trained in Iraq, but bred and trained in North America then brought over to Iraq, a Belgian Malinois, a beautiful, angular faced dog, sat calmly at the feet of a Marine strapped into a CH-53E Super Stallion helicopter. The 53E, which is powered by three 4,300 horsepower engines, is the most powerful helicopter used in the U.S. Military. The helicopter is a monster, and it's monstrously loud, especially for those sitting directly below the helicopter's rotor hub, where a complex transmission combines the power of those three engines, spinning an array of gears that produces a deafening shriek and tens of thousands of pounds of lift. I had protective ‘foamies' set firmly in my ear canals; the Malinois, however, had no hearing protection whatsoever (neither, I should note, did his handler). Thinking the dog's sensitive ears must be in pain (mine were, even with the ear plugs), I couldn't help but try to shield the Malinois' ears with my hands. The Marine handler smiled then laughed. "He's fine" he mouthed. "He's used to it. It's his job." The pallid green lights in the hold of the 53 flickered off and we launched into the night.
Dogs have been used as implements of combat for centuries. But their presence on the battlefield still seems to captivate and even mystify many of us. Why? While they serve important and unique functions on the battlefield, many of us seem to have not just personified dogs, but ‘super personified' them. We establish bonds with dogs, it seems, far faster than we do with other humans. ‘Rex' and ‘Rover' are easily adopted into the family -- and if that family consists of non dog lovers, Rex and Rover typically flip their sentiments 180 degrees post haste. And dogs remain ‘family members' even after peeing all over the $5,000 imported rug. Cousin Chester got banished forever from the family for snaking out on a loan for a couple hundred bucks to dad. They're sweet, intelligent (mostly, and ‘dumbness' in dogs is far more endearing than it is a hindrance), insightful, and most importantly, tuned in to our moods. Aren't they above war? What if Ostrich had the same olfactory prowess as dogs, and we saw images of giant birds loping along dusty, rutted dirt roads alongside squads of Marines, pecking in the air in the direction of IEDs they just sniffed? We'd probably laugh, but we wouldn't get on the edges of our seats, worrying about them setting off those IEDs, like so many of us do when we see images dogs on those dusty, rutted dirt roads -- and like we do when we see images troops on those dusty, rutted dirt roads.
But not all dogs in war are ‘tools' used by the human combatants of that war. Most, in fact, are just there when war happens. Many actually get adopted by the combatants themselves, and not to perform a function like Henryetta did for Special Forces and then Marines of Camp Blessing against opposing combatants, but for something that commanders, at least officially, frown upon as a ‘hygiene issue:' they become pets. Like Hamchuck and Henryetta, these dogs walk into a base, but there they often stay -- or I should say, are kept -- bringing a warm semblance of home to the austerity of deployed life.
In 2009 I met one such dog, Alf, who lived with a small group of Marines at a forward operating base that sat up against the Pakistani border in eastern Afghanistan's Kunar Province. The Marines, part of an embedded training team, or ETT (tasked to train, mentor, and advise Afghan forces in combat operations), had built Alf a fortified doghouse, provided food and water for him, and had even given him his own name tag (a family member of one of the Marines had it made and shipped to them). Unlike my surprise at meeting Henry, however, I wasn't shocked by Alf; I was actually relieved. The base, Forward Operating Base Monti, got attacked on a regular basis. Monti was mortared once and rocketed once during my one-week stay. Such attacks come out of nowhere, at any time during the day or night. Alf, peering out of his sandbagged doghouse, however, relaxed me. He even made me laugh and forget where I was -- just minutes after the attacks when he wagged his tail. Yes he was dirty (even for a dog in a war zone), and I admit to wondering if Alf had his requisite shots (I'm sure he didn't), but he was still a dog, and as terrible a place FOB Monti was due to the constant threat of dismemberment and death, Alf kept my mind off of those enervating thoughts and worries that plague those in combat zones. He reminding me of home, and made me realize that a dog is a dog wherever that dog may be. They can't comprehend that they are in a war zone; they're wonderfully, warmly oblivious to the dangers, and I found that warmth to be contagious.
And that begs the question, can ‘military working dogs' be just what they are supposed to be -- tools of warfare, always coldly utilized and employed like M16s or armored troop carriers? I don't think so. During my most recent embed, which took place in the Helmand Province of southwestern Afghanistan in the month of February, 2011, I came in contact with both military working dogs and local dogs. Contrary to many news stories, not all military dogs are ultra-efficient machines, ruthlessly sniffing out explosives and weapons where they are hidden. At one far-flung patrol base housing just a squad of Marines, I met a military working dog -- its name I won't disclose -- who never went out on any patrols. She had accompanied Marines on a few during the beginning of their deployment, but when the Taliban engaged the Marines in a firefight she flipped out and ran away. A long search ensued; she finally wandered back into base hours later -- hungry and exhausted. "She's got doggy PTSD now," one of the Marines told me. Of course, she still served the Marines well -- she gave them company, and they gave her the food and attention all dogs crave. At that same patrol base, a small fur-ball of a puppy had wandered inside the perimeter one day, separated from its mother either by death or abandonment. Yes -- the puppy represented a potential hygiene problem, but he was welcome nonetheless. The puppy saw the Marines off during each patrol, and welcomed them back as they crossed safely back inside the wire after each potentially deadly, and always exhausting mission.
Most military working dogs, however, prove to be vital assets. ‘Copper,' a yellow Labrador had discovered 34 major explosives and weapons caches. Lotty, a black lab whom I met during a large operation on the outskirts of the city of Marjah, had ten finds under her belt. Contrary to some reports, these dogs don't wear body armor (well, maybe some do, none that I ever saw), and none have titanium teeth. But...they do have ranks, and they are always one rank higher than their handlers, ensuring that they are well cared for -- if they are not, then the handler can be court marshaled for a number of offenses, including insubordination.
Without exception -- at least that I saw -- all of these dogs are well cared for. And the dogs, whether they are military working dogs brought over from the United States like Copper and Lotty, found and used in-country like Hamchuck and Henryetta, or just adopted pets like Alf, pay this back in spades. Even in the very worst of the world's war zones, dogs still wag their tails.
Ed Darack is an independent writer and photographer. His book Victory Point (www.victorypoint.info), now out in paperback and chosen as one of the best books of 2009 by the Naval Institute, details Operations Red Wings and Whalers-including the roles Hamchuck and Henrietta played. His website is www.darack.com
Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military for the Washington Post from 2000 through 2008.