By Rebecca Frankel
Best Defense Chief Canine Correspondent
During a night mission this past Wednesday, Marine Cpl. Joshua R. Ashley was KIA by an IED blast while on patrol in Helmand Province. Ashley's father, John, told local reporters last night that Ashley's dog, Sirius, who was with him that night, survived.
There will be many reasons why Ashley's death is going to be an especially harsh blow to the MWD community. The first is that this fresh loss comes, once again, too close on the heels of the deaths of MA2 Sean Brazas and Cpl. Keaton Coffey. The second is that, unlike the Brazas and Coffey (who were killed "during combat operations"), Ashley was killed by an IED, the very thing he and Sirius were trained to detect. And the last reason -- or at least the last one I will list here -- is that it's hard to imagine that someone like Ashley could be killed by anything. A formidable presence by any measure, he stood well above six feet tall and was an avid weightlifter; he was, in a word, enormous. And from a distance, Ashley appeared indestructible.
The above photo of Ashley and Sirius is one I took in March. I spent two weeks with them and the other 16 dog teams who trained at the Inter-Service Advance Skills K9 Course at Yuma Proving Ground in Yuma, Arizona. I won't say that I knew him well, I didn't. But I spent hours watching this pair work, and it was Ashley and Sirius I trailed a short distance behind while they went through a "night mission" during the course's final exams. I chose to follow them because I knew they were a standout team. I chose to follow them because they were fun, lively, and exciting to watch.
Charismatic and a born leader, Ashley originally of Rancho Cucamonga, CA, was admired by many. "He didn't have to try," says Tech Sergeant Justin Kitts who was an instructor from the Air Force when Ashley and Sirius came through YPG. Ashley, who he remembers as "funny and who take care of the other guys," was one of his favorite students and his death has Kitts "shook up." And "after six months of classes coming through," he told me yesterday, "that means something."
In the emotion of this week, in the emotion of writing this post even, it is hard not to stray into sentiment, into too quickly memorializing this young Marine. To be honest, I remember thinking Ashley was pretty damn cocky -- a characteristic most handlers will tell you is a pre-requisite for the job. I also initially thought him aloof and nonchalant which is why I was surprised when, out of the blue, he volunteered to set up this Sirius-drives-the-gator photo shoot for me. As he positioned the four-year-old Shepherd's paws on the steering wheel he did it with a patience and gentleness I didn't expect.
In addition to all the tactical training they teach out at YPG, the instructors there also work hard to impart the kind of lessons you can't train for, to instill upon their young servicemen and women the state of mind necessary to do the job of clearing roads for bombs. I heard it repeated over and over whenever a handler would get tripped up and when nerves and frustration would well up, taking over. "When it's your time to go, it's your time to go," they would reason, saying, "Relax. Just trust your dog." The sad truth is that it doesn't matter how good the handler or how spot-on the dog, there simply is no foolproof way to get past every IED.
The instructors who trained Ashley and Sirius during the IASK course are taking this loss hard-they're sad, pissed off. But those still working at YPG are out in the hot sun as I write this, training up another class of handlers. One such instructor, Sgt. Charlie Hardesty, marveled that a big man like Ashley could be so humble and that his fellow Marines followed him without hesitation.
And then, "I wish this war was over."
Ashley's family is planning a memorial service for Monday. He is survived by his parents and two brothers.
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.