By Rebecca Frankel
Best Defense Chief Canine Correspondent
In the still-dark of a cold and foggy-wet December morning with temperatures hovering just above freezing, more than 400 servicemen and women gathered at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan to participate in a 5K-run. They didn't do it for PT or to raise funds for a cause or even to boost morale (though I'm sure it provided amply on that front). They were instead offering a show of solidarity and appreciation for the Military Working Dogs who have made a deep and lasting impression there.
I spoke with the run's organizers, Sgt. Alyssa Doughty, Capt. Katie Barry, and Spc. William Vidal who are part of the 64th Medical Detachment (Veterinary Services), early one morning last week. Our connection was a poor one but even as the phone line to Bagram crackled and echoed, one thing came through clear enough -- the force of feeling that fueled this event.
"I've grown to love these dogs more than I ever thought I would," Sgt. Doughty said. "Being in Afghanistan of course is hard. You're away from your family in an area that can be dangerous and so distant from home. But it makes it so much more worth it that I came here and got to work with [these dogs] and truly see what they actually do. It makes me appreciate them even more and want to fight for them to be considered actual soldiers."
A big part of the team's job is regularly working with the canines and their handlers, from day-to-day medical necessities like keeping the dogs well hydrated and ensuring their paws are protected from the rocky terrain. But they also deal with the worst casualties of down-range dangers like gunfights and explosions.
"Here at Bagram, we get a lot of combat related injuries in the field," Barry said. "We work with a lot of dogs that are in a lot of pain, we get a lot of the dogs that have passed away."
During our talk Barry, Doughty, and Vidal relayed stories of some particularly remarkable dog, a wounded canine charge that tolerated an arduous healing process with more patience and sweetness than could reasonably be expected. (Case in point the above photo of Spc. Vidal holding Peggy, a MWD who lost the use of her legs for no discernable reason. Through treatment Peggy is now well enough to be retired and likely going to live with her handler.)
It's clear that the team has bonded with the dogs and are committed to them in a way they perhaps weren't before arriving in Afghanistan. "Before I got here didn't know the capability of these working dogs," Vidal said. "Being here and seeing them get injured completely changed my mind about who they are. I kind of see them a little bit more valuable more than myself, really, all the training they have and all the amazing capabilities they have. "
Raising the level of awareness of MWDs' role in combat and the tremendous effect their service has, was indeed the driving factor behind the December run. The event kicked off with a presentation including a moving video compilation. Vidal, who compiled the footage, said he mostly used photos that they had taken themselves so "it hit really close to us."
Though the run wasn't the first this team put on it was the last for the 64th, at least for now. Both Barry and Doughty returned home from Afghanistan this week after completing their one-year tour. Vidal who joined them in July will stay on until his tour is complete this summer. Whether or not the runs or the upkeep of the "Wall of Honor" -- a tribute the team erected showcasing photos of MWDs and their handlers -- carries on is entirely up to their replacements, the members of the 72nd Medical Detachment (Veterinary Services).
"We hope that they continue to honor the dogs that have been injured or lost their lives in defense of their country," Capt. Barry said.
And so do we.
Photos Courtesy of W. Vidal
Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military for the Washington Post from 2000 through 2008.