By Rebecca Frankel
Best Defense Chief Canine Correspondent
Lance Corporal James Wilkinson was a mere two meters away when a roadside bomb exploded, sending shrapnel spray into his hip and stomach, severing the femoral artery in his leg. The blast launched Wilkinson off his feet, and though he was able to take stock of the severity of his wounds, he blacked out before he could call for help.
When he came to he found Tam, the yellow Labrador who'd been his bomb-sniffing partner during their three months in Afghanistan, standing over him. After the explosion Tam, who had not been injured in the attack, stuck close by his handler through the billowing black smoke and barked "like mad," not only bringing Wilkinson back to consciousness, but also drawing their fellow soldiers to his aid. They treated him quickly, applying a tourniquet to his leg and getting him onto the U.S. Black Hawk helicopter that brought him swiftly to Camp Bastion's military hospital.
The doctors who repaired the extensive damage done to his hip and leg told Wilkinson, a dog handler with the 104 Military MWD Squadron of the British Army, that if he'd arrived at the hospital "a minute later he would be dead." His surgeries lasted an entire day.
Originally from Yorkshire, Wilkinson, 26, is still working through his recovery. "It is a slow process," he told reporters, "but I am getting there. I am walking, which is the main thing. A lot of guys who get caught by IEDs (improvised explosive devices) end up losing a leg or both."
Unfortunately, his career as a military dog handler is over. Wilkinson suffered nerve damage in his leg and still has shrapnel in his body. The Army has classified him as "non-deployable." His wife Kerry has left the Army and hopes that her husband will decide to join her in civilian life and return to his former job as a gamekeeper. They are expecting their first child this summer. But Kerry, who was also a handler with the 104, knew Tam and saw the connection between her husband and his canine partner. "They had a great bond. Jim loved that dog."
There is no questioning the role the dog played in saving this soldier's life. Of Tam, Wilkinson says, "He was my world. He was a good companion and I trusted him."
Rebecca Frankel, on leave from her FP desk, is currently writing a book about military working dogs, to be published by Free Press.
Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military for the Washington Post from 2000 through 2008.